He has two movies listed as being in pre-production; like a lot of the people I’ve been working to get to for Celebrating the Living lately, he was not a young man. He was one of those people who was working, and doing good work, two decades after the US retirement age. The consistent problem I’ve had with Celebrating the Living is that it’s just not possible for me to get to everyone who deserves it. I would have to write more than one column a week for that.
Honestly, yes—he first came to my attention in Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” music video. Madonna—herself also Italian-American—made many videos that were essentially little films. And often they were cast wisely. I’m not sure Danny Aiello quite looks like Madonna enough to be convincing as her father, but he does some good silent acting in that video. It was made several years after he won his only Emmy, indeed one of his only major awards, for an ABC Afterschool Special. He also played a parent in that; his episode was about a stepfamily where he was one of the two parents.
Really, quite a lot of his career went back and forth between classics—like The Godfather: Part II—and, shall we say, less critically acclaimed stuff—like Hudson Hawk. The whole ABC Afterschool Special thing is an interesting case, inasmuch as the series mostly comes in for cultural mockery yet did have some quality work involved. Not that I’ve seen any of them in years; maybe someone should get them on streaming. But there’s a lot of big names in those things, admittedly before they were famous.
And then there is probably his most famous role, which he didn’t want to take. He frankly did not think it was a good role, initially—meaning before he read the script—because asking an Italian-American to play a guy who runs a pizza place felt a bit Not Great to him. I mean, he played a bunch of mobsters, too, which you also figure has some negative connotations, but there it is. He read the script and agreed to take the part and it is frankly an amazing performance. I’m not a huge Spike Lee fan, for reasons I’m not going to get into here, but Do the Right Thing is one of the best movies of the ’80s and wouldn’t have worked half so well without a strong performance in Sal.
Aiello himself overcame quite a lot. His father abandoned the family when he was a child. His mother was legally blind, and Aiello was the fifth of six children. He lied about his age to join the military; he apparently helped support the family. He spent time as a union representative for Greyhound bus drivers, and I’m always supportive of unions. He was forty when he appeared in Bang the Drum Slowly, and we’re not talking one of those people who spent decades doing commercials and things first; he’s one of those “started a new career in middle age and excelled” people. And that’s awfully admirable all by itself.