My staff and I are greatly saddened to report that actor Danny Aiello died Thursday night in New Jersey at 86 after being struck with a sudden illness.
Danny Aiello was the furthest thing from a stuck-up, overnight Hollywood success. He didn’t even start acting until he was 35. Growing up poor, he hustled to survive, doing everything from selling papers to shining shoes, even a little numbers running for the mob and stealing change from cigarette machines when he was desperate to feed his family (although he insisted he would never rob a human being.) After three years in the Army, he handled bags for Greyhound and worked his way up to an executive spot in the bus driver’s union, but quit after being falsely accused of sparking a wildcat strike. While working as a bouncer at a comedy club, he overcame his stage fright to emcee the show, and that was the start of his life in the spotlight.
His first break came in the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and he quickly began racking up a resume filled with some of the most famous films of the past 40 years, working for such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Spike Lee: “Do The Right Thing,” (for which he scored an Oscar nomination), “The Godfather Part II,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Moonstruck,” “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and many more. He was equally adept at serious and comic roles, and was a true multi-talent, launching another successful late-life career as a Sinatra-style club singer and recording artist. One of his albums of swingin’ standards, “I Just Wanted to Hear the Words,” made the top 10 on Billboard’s jazz chart.
I had the good fortune of meeting, interviewing and playing with him on several occasions. Here he is on my Fox News show, performing a great big band arrangement of the old Sophie Tucker tune, “Some of These Days.”
Perhaps because he grew up poor and had so much experience in the real world, Aiello was one of the rare outspoken conservatives in showbiz (he was once named one of Hollywood’s 50 Most Influential Republicans – yes, they actually found 50!) He was known for blasting Hollywood liberals for saying they cared so much about the little guy, then shooting movies in non-union states where they could pay the crew less than scale. He also criticized all the cursing on “The Sopranos,” claiming that nobody talks like that in an Italian household (he said he wouldn’t even dare say “Hell” in front of his mother.) And here he is again on my Fox News show, expressing his anger over the 9/11 plotters being given a civilian trial in his hometown of New York City, and jokingly describing his politics as “to the right of Attila the Hun.”
Danny Aiello may have had a late start in show business, but he built an incredibly rich legacy of movie, TV and Broadway roles, as well as concerts and recordings. His work will be enjoyed for generations to come. And while he sometimes played bad guys in the movies, he was truly one of the good guys in the entertainment industry.
If you’d like to learn more about him, he published an autobiography a few years ago called “I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies.”
My staff and I send our prayers and deepest sympathies to his family, especially to his three surviving children and his wife of 64 years, Sandy Cohen. Here’s an article in which she shares the surprising secret of their long marriage:
And here’s a round-up of tributes from his many admiring co-stars and colleagues: