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Spike Lee and Cher lead tributes to the late 'genius' Danny Aiello, who is dead at age 86

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Danny Aiello, who was known for roles in Do the Right Thing and Moonstruck, is being remembered as a “genius comedic actor” and “true legend in his craft” after his death Thursday at age 86.

Tributes to the actor, who was 40 when he made his feature film debut, have been flooding social media from co-stars, colleagues and fans as news broke Friday. A statement from his rep said the “beloved husband, father, grandfather, actor and musician passed away last night after a brief illness.”

In Spike Lee 1989 film Do the Right Thing, the NYC native played a pizzeria owner in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as racial issues boiled over, earning Aiello an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In Moonstruck, he played Cher’s fiancé, who called off their engagement only to have her become engaged to his brother (Nicolas Cage). Aiello, who started his career on the stage in NYC and appeared on Broadway, also made several movies with Woody Allen, including The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days.

Danny Aiello poses for a portrait at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

He had a bit but memorable role in The Godfather Part II — he infamously said "Michael Corleone says hello,” while offing a rival gangster, a line he ad-libbed and director Francis Ford Coppola liked — and played Madonna’s dad in her 1986 “Papa Don’t Preach” video. A singer himself, he recorded a rebuttal song to Madonna’s hit called “Papa Wants the Best for You.”) He also maybe inspired Robert De Niro’s infamous “You talking to me?” line in 1976’s Taxi Driver. When he and his wife, Sandy Aiello, saw the film in 1976, she turned to him and said, “Danny, he’s doing you,” Aiello wrote in his 2014 memoir, I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else. (Aiello had previously worked with De Niro in his feature film debut, 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly, as well as The Godfather Part II.)

Spike Lee headed up the tributes with a series of photos related to their work on Do The Right Thing. They ranged from a picture of them together in June for a celebration of the movie’s 30th anniversary. to shots of them making the movie.

Lee called himself “heartbroken” to learn of Aiello’s “transition,” writing, “Danny, We made cinema history together with Do the Right Thing. May You Rest In PARADISE.”

Lee also sent condolences to the family, including Aiello’s wife Sandy and son Rick, who also had a role in DTRT. The director then urged fans to rewatch the film this weekend in memory of the actor.

Aiello’s Moonstruck leading lady, Cher, called him a “great actor” but a “genius comedic actor.” She said they “laughed so much making Moonstruck. It was one of the happiest times in my life and he was a part of that.” She ended the post with, “Goodbye, Johnny Cammareri. [Love, Loretta].”

Michael Kay, broadcaster for the New York Yankees, was Aiello’s nephew and he honored the “terrific man” who was “self-made, coming from nothing to be an Academy nominated actor.” Kay aded that Aiello “loved his family,” especially Sandy, to whom he was married for 64 years.

Charlize Theron, who worked with Aiello in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley early in her career, said he was “everything you could’ve imagined — funny, gracious, kind and a true legend in his craft.”

Mia Farrow, who worked with him on Allen projects, called him a “superb actor” and “lovely person.”

Some more of the reactions:

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