Saturday 18 January 2020

Obituary: Danny Aiello

Character actor who played Madonna's father in the 'Papa Don't Preach' video

Talent: Danny Aiello
Talent: Danny Aiello

Danny Aiello, who has died aged 86, was a stout, dependable character actor who came to prominence in middle age, lending a doughy humanity to paternal or avuncular, typically Italian-American parts.

His enhanced visibility from the mid-1980s onwards was in part down to Madonna. In the promo for the singer's 1986 chart-topper Papa Don't Preach, Aiello played the patriarch agonising over his daughter's life choices; within this somewhat stock melodramatic role, he conveyed mixed emotions - weariness, rage and, at the last, understanding - with consummate economy.

In the enjoyable romcom Moonstruck (1987), Aiello was cast as Johnny Cammameri, the devoted albeit conservative fiance whom Cher's Loretta Castorini leaves behind for a fling with Johnny's livewire younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Though much of the considerable critical praise went the way of his colleagues, Aiello brought a genuine poignancy to the part of Johnny, a mamma's boy so devoted to the woman who raised him that he was willing to sacrifice his own shot at happiness. In Spike Lee's altogether more confrontational Do the Right Thing (1989), Aiello played Sal, owner of a Brooklyn pizzeria that becomes the locus for a vicious race riot on a sweltering summer's day. Empowered by the freedom to improvise scenes, he gave an indelible performance as one of several lives changed over a frazzling 24-hour period, earning Best Supporting Actor nominations at both the Golden Globes and Oscars.

He was born Daniel Louis Aiello Jr in 1933 in Manhattan, the fifth of six children raised almost single-handedly by their seamstress mother Frances Pietrocova after her labourer husband abandoned the family.

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It was a rough upbringing. The young Danny was sent out to shine shoes at Grand Central Station after his mother lost her eyesight; according to the actor's 2014 memoir, I Only Know Who I Am When I'm Somebody Else, he drifted into running numbers and robbing cigarette machines to help make ends meet.

Aiello found greater stability after three years of military service, marrying his teenage sweetheart Sandy Cohen in 1955. Standing at 6ft 2in, with a bulky, army-honed physique, Aiello was working as a bouncer at New York comedy club The Improv when he was asked to fill in for an MC who had been taken ill. It inspired him to try out for acting roles.

He made his screen debut at 40 in the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), before popping up in several noteworthy films: he was the assassin Tony Rosato, ad-libbing the line "Michael Corleone says hello" as he garrottes Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather: Part II (1974).

Aiello was never as prominent after his mid-1980s moment in the sun, though he continued to compile credits.

He settled into secondary roles, appearing in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter (1994) and alongside Rik Mayall in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997). Increasingly, his creative energies were focused on a singing career. Proximity to Madonna imbued Aiello with renewed confidence: in 1987 he recorded a Papa Don't Preach answer song called Papa Wants the Best for You.

He is survived by his wife Sandy and their three children. A fourth child, the stuntman Danny Aiello III, died in 2010.

Danny Aiello, born June 20, 1933, died December 12, 2019.

Sunday Independent

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