Celebrated actor Danny Aiello, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his polarizing role as a pizzeria owner in Brooklyn in Spike Lee‘s seminal film, “Do The Right Thing,” died Thursday, according to multiple reports. The 86-year-old’s face was ubiquitous on the big and small screens for decades.
More than likely, Black America’s intimate introduction to Aiello’s on-screen talents came during two movies in particular: the aforementioned cinematic masterpiece that was based in the historically Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant that has since become heavily gentrified — something Lee hinted at in the movie — as well as “Harlem Nights,” a cult classic period piece starring comedic legends Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Redd Foxx.
But it was Aiello’s transformative role as longtime neighborhood pizzeria owner Salvatore “Sal” Fragione that made his face well-known in the homes of fans of “Do The Right Thing,” which was released in the summer of 1989 and touched on the fragile race relations between Bed Stuy’s Black residents, the Italian presence of Sal and his family, and the NYPD.
Aiello’s Sal struggled with his own implicit biases against the very Black people he called his faithful customers, something that culminated with a defining race riot scene that features many still-contemporary urban themes despite the movie being 30 years old. That scene was sparked by the character Radio Raheem, which was played by actor Bill Nunn, who died in 2016.
Not to be discounted, Aiello’s magnificently played his role in “Harlem Nights” (also released in 1989) as a corrupt NYPD detective trying to extort Sugar Ray, a candy store owner played by Pryor who also operates an illegal casino. The period piece set in 1930s Harlem yielded some amazingly memorable moments, such as when Murphy’s character got beaten up by Della Reese‘s Vera, a madam who ran her business from the casino.
But Aiello was also a dominant force in the film, carving out an indelible niche as detective Phil Cantone that was on display for all to see during a tense scene trying to strong-arm Sugar Ray into paying off the cops so they don’t bust his casino. The scene produced a legendary quote from Aiello’s Cantone when he used the word “hovel” after an expletive while referencing Bugsy Calhoune, a murderous gangster in the movie.
In totality, both films captured Aiello starring alongside some of the best Black talent in Hollywood and endeared the Italian actor and New Jersey native into the hearts of African American moviegoers. Scroll down to see some of his most memorable — and Blackest — moments on screen, courtesy of “Do The Right Thing” and “Harlem Nights.”