Three years later, he got his first movie: "Bang the Drum Slowly," with Robert De Niro, whose acting talent far outweighed his baseball skills. "He simply couldn't throw the ball," Aiello said.
Great parts kept coming, and in 1990, Aiello got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in "Do the Right Thing."
He didn't win -- and says he doesn't think he should have, so as not to "cheapen" the award: "I said, 'If I got it, how good could it be?'"
"You really believe that?"
"Danny Aiello? Come on. Backed into acting. Never studied a day in his life. I'm not being cool here, I'm telling you straight dope."
Nevertheless, two of Aiello's sons went into the business. Rick is an actor, and Danny III was known throughout the industry as a great stuntman. In "Fort Apache, the Bronx," when you can't see Danny, it's his son throwing the punches.
But at age 52, Danny III was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in 2010.
His father said, "Everything in me was empty. There was not -- there wasn't a human. I didn't feel anything. I was completely numb."
Aiello says he found comfort in work. Still, at 81, he can't help thinking about his own mortality.
"If death comes, it comes, and it will someday," he said. "How I'm gonna deal with it, I don't know. Hopefully good. But I don't like airplanes. A lotta people say, 'Well, you afraid?' No. What bothers me when I get in an airplane is that -- maybe I didn't say to those that I love, that I didn't hug each one of them and say 'I loved you' before I went. Because I would hate to think I died and they didn't hear my last words. That's why I hate to fly."
A life lived with few regrets, except maybe one: He never got to work with the great director Martin Scorsese.
"Now, I'm the only Italian American in the United States that's not in one of his movies," he laughed. "Okay? I am the only one. Does he think I suck? Does he think I'm the worst actor in the world? Maybe he does. That's fine. But I've seen some of the actors in some of his pictures. And they do suck. You know what I mean? But they were still in his movies.
"Anyway. I don't want you to think I resent Marty Scorsese because of that. But I do," he laughed.
For more info:
- "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, On the Stage, and in the Movies" by Danny Aiello (Gallery Books); Also available in eBook format
- Follow Danny Aiello on Facebook