Danny Aiello has left us today and with him goes a level of class, talent and charisma that was unparalleled in Hollywood and independent cinema. He had the kind of frame and presence that saw him embody many Italian mafia and tough guy roles but he also had an angelic, gentle essence which came in handy in gentler turns, as well as some of the tougher ones where he brought a softer edge out. Rest In Peace Danny, you were a wonderful, scene stealing, truly great actor and here are my top ten personal favourite performances:
10. Vincent Dianni in Danny Aiello III’s 18 Shades Of Dust aka Hitman’s Journal
I chose this because it’s one of his only lead roles and it was directed by his late son who passed away before him, sadly. It’s a classic low budget NYC crime flick starring Danny and William Forsythe embroiled in a feud between a crime family and the owner of a restaurant. Danny embues his character with a moral complexity and has terrific chemistry with Forsythe.
9. Captain Vincent Alcoa in Pat O Connor’s The January Man
I’m not a fan of this film and in my opinion it downright sucks, but there are some amped up, ham fisted portrayals to marvel at, Aiello’s turn as a hilariously aggressive police captain included. He’s clearly having fun and blowing off steam and gets one of the best, most maniacal “fuck you!!!” moments in cinema, directed at Kevin Kline’s weirdo detective.
8. Tony Rosato in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II
It’s just one quick scene he as a mob hitman here but he famously improvised the line “Michael Corleone says hello” that Coppola loved and kept in the film. Not to mention he gets one gnarly attempted murder and drag the body off frame moment, he might as well have been saying that Michael Myers says hello.
7. Roth in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin
Another tiny cameo but here he serves as warning to one of the characters that events about to be set in motion can’t be undone once the decision is made. Roth is a racetrack bookie who knows a shady bet when he sees one and provides ample foreshadowing before the narrative reaches an event horizon of misfortune.
6. Sal in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing
An Italian pizzeria owner who has had enough, his hotheaded actions basically spur on a riot and push a racially charged portion of the city into riot. Everyone in this film is in performance overdrive, sweaty, fired up and ready for conflict, Danny included as the kind of dude who is always a few inches short of blowing his fuse.
5. Al in Kevin Dowlands’ Mojave Moon
Everyone’s a little loopy in this offbeat indie dramedy. Danny’s Al gives young Angelina Jolie a lift from the big city out to a strange Mojave Desert enclave where he cultivates odd relationships with her, her mom (Anne Archer) and her mom’s unhinged whacko boyfriend (Michael Biehn). This is one of those meandering little experiments about nothing in particular save a gaggle of wayward individuals interacting, often in bizarre fashion. Danny headlines charmingly, has wonderful chemistry with Jolie and blesses this offbeat script with his undeniable talent.
4. Mr. Johnny Cammereri in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck
Johnny is sweet, good natured and just a bit dumb. He has the misfortune of seeing his fiancé fall for his younger brother but it’s all handled in a lighthearted way in this charming romantic comedy. He gives the role a childlike charm whether he’s aloofly proposing to Cher in a crowded Italian restaurant or using the Adam & Eve parable to explain skirt chasers.
3. Tommy Five-Tone in Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk
What a misunderstood, undervalued gem of a film. Bruce Willis and Danny are Hudson and Tommy, two NYC cat burglars dragged into a loopy global caper all the way to Italy and beyond. The film’s tone is akin to something like The Looney Toons, with both actors displaying a rambunctious, fun loving personality and together embodying one of the funniest and one of my favourite bro-mances in cinema.
2. Louis in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder
I used the word angelic in the above summary of Danny specifically for this role. Louis is massage therapist, confidante, guardian angel and only friend in the world to Tim Robbins deeply haunted protagonist and the kindness, compassion and protective energy he emanates is a lighthouse of positivity in a sea of disturbing horror imagery that is this film.
1. Tony in Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional
This is the role that’s most special to me, the one I always think of when someone brings Danny up and exists in a special, classic film that I grew up with and watch at least a few times a year. Tony is the ultimate gangster with a heart of gold, father figure and mentor to hitman Leon (Jean Reno), dose of tough love to orphan Mathilda (Natalie Portman), both of whom he has beautiful chemistry with. He’s the neighborhood sage, consummate wise guy and gentleman mobster with a self titled kind streak. The core Aiello performance for me.