Mild-mannered gangster master Paul Sorvino dies at 83


Paul Sorvino, the badass actor – and operatic tenor and figurative sculptor – known for his roles as quiet and often politely calm but dangerous men in films like “Freedmenand TV shows like “Law & Order,” died on Monday. He was 83 years old.

His publicist, Roger Neal, confirmed the death at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. No specific cause was given, but Mr Neal said Mr Sorvino ‘has been dealing with health issues for the past few years’.

Mr Sorvino was the father of Mira Sorvino, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Woody Allen’s ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ (1995). In her acceptance speech, she said her father “taught me everything I know about acting.”

Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed mafia epic, emerged when Mr. Sorvino was 50 and decades into his film career. His character, Paulie Cicerowas a local mob boss – heavyset, soft-spoken and icy.

“Paulie may have moved slowly,” says Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, his neighborhood protege in the film, “but that was only because he didn’t have to move for anyone.” (Mr. Liotta died in May at age 67.)

Mr Sorvino almost gave up the role because he couldn’t fully emotionally connect, he told comedian Jon Stewart, who interviewed a panel of ‘Goodfellas’ alumni at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. When you “find the backbone” of a character, Mr. Sorvino said, “he makes all the decisions for you.”

It didn’t happen, he recalls, until one day he was adjusting his tie, looked in the mirror and saw something in his own eyes. When he saw what he called “that deadly Paulie look”, Mr Sorvino told The Lowcountry Weekly, a South Carolina publication, in 2019, “I knew in that moment that I embraced my inner mafia boss.”

He had made his mark on stage as a very different but perhaps equally soulless character in “This league season(1972), Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy about the sad reunion of high school basketball players whose glory days date back decades. In the original Broadway production, Mr. Sorvino played Phil Romano, a small-town surface mining millionaire arrogantly having an affair with the mayor’s wife.

Mr. Sorvino received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play and reprized the role in a 1982 movie adaptation.

Paul Anthony Sorvino was born on April 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, the youngest of three sons of Fortunato Sorvino, aka Ford, and Marietta (Renzi) Sorvino, a homemaker and piano teacher. The eldest, Mr. Sorvino, a dress factory foreman, was born in Naples, Italy, and emigrated to New York with his parents in 1907.

Paul grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn and attended Lafayette High School. His initial career dream was to to sing – he idolized the Italian-American tenor and actor Mario Lanza – and he started taking singing lessons when he was around 8 years old.

In the late 1950s he began performing at Catskills resorts and at charity events. In 1963, he received his Actors Equity card as a choir member in “South Pacific” and “The Student Prince” at the Westbury Theater on Long Island. That same year, he began studying drama at American Musical and Dramatic Academy At New York.

Acting jobs were elusive. Mr. Sorvino’s Broadway debut in the chorus of the musical “Bajour” (1964) lasted nearly seven months, but his next show, the comedy “Mating Dance” (1965), starring Van Johnson , ended on the night of the premiere.

Mr. Sorvino has worked as a waiter and bartender, sold cars, taught theater to children and appeared in advertisements for deodorant and tomato sauce. After the birth of his first child, Mira, he wrote publicity texts for nine months, but office work gave him an ulcer.

“Most of the time I was just another out-of-work actor who couldn’t be stopped,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “I was confident in my abilities and angry. like hell when others i don’t recognize it.

Then his luck changed. He made his film debut in “Where is dad ?(1970), a dark comedy directed by Carl Reiner, in a small role as a nursing home owner. Then “That Championship Season” arrived, starting with the Off Broadway production at the Public Theater.

The movie role that first caught his eye was that of Joseph Bologna’s grumpy Italian-American father in “made for each other(1971). Mr. Sorvino, almost five years younger than Mr. Bologna, wore old-age makeup for the role.

He appeared next as a New Yorker robbed by a prostitute in “The Panic in Needle Park” (1972) but did not immediately fall victim to the stereotype of cops and gangsters. In 1973, he was George Segal’s film producer friend in “A Touch of Class” and a mysterious government agent in “The Day of the Dolphin.”

Mr. Sorvino went on to play a selfish, money-hungry evangelist with a Southern accent in the comedy.”Oh my God!(1977) and God Himself in “The Devil’s Carnival” (2012) and its 2015 sequel. He was a down-to-earth journalist in love with a ballerina in “Slow dance in the big city(1978). In “Reds” (1981), he was a passionate Russian-American communist leader just before the Bolshevik Revolution.

He was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, with a German accent, in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). And he played Fulgencio Capulet, Juliet’s intense father with an old grudge, in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996).

But over a half-century career on screen, Mr. Sovino’s characters were often on the wrong side of the law. He played, among others, Chubby from Coco (“Blood brothers», 1978), Lips Manlis (“Dick Tracy”, 1980), Big Mike Cicero (“How cute”, 2013), Jimmy Scambino (“Sicilian Vampire”, 2015) and Fat Tony Salerno (“kill the irish», 2011).

And in at least 20 roles, he’s played law enforcement officers with titles like detective, captain, or chief. For one season (1991-92), he served as Sgt. Phil Cerreta on NBC’s “Law & Order,” but he found the filming schedule too demanding — and hard on his voice.

Mr. Sorvino continued to sing professionally, making his City Opera debut in Frank Loesser “The happiest guy” in 2006.

His personal life has sometimes reinforced his badass image. More recently, in 2018, when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was on trial for criminal sex acts — and Mira Sorvino accused him of harassment — Mr. Sorvino predicted that Mr. Weinstein would die in prison. “Because if not, he must meet me, and I will kill the [expletive deleted] – very simple,” Mr. Sorvino said in a wide broadcast video interview.

Four months later, Mr. Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Mr. Sorvino’s last on-screen roles were in 2019. He played a corrupt senator in the spy film “Welcome to Acapulco,” and crime boss Frank Costello in the Epix series “Godfather of Harlem”.

He married Lorraine Davis, an actress, in 1966, and they had three children before divorcing in 1988. Mr. Sorvino’s second wife, from 1991 until their divorce in 1996, was Vanessa Arico, a real estate agent. He married Dee Dee Benkiea Republican political strategist, in 2014.

Mr. Sorvino began sculpting in bronze in the 1970s and found his non-stage art work particularly satisfying. “That’s why I prefer it,” he told The Sun-Sentinel, a Florida newspaper, in 2005. “Nobody really tells you how to finish something.”

“Performing on stage is like making sculpture,” he said. “Acting in movies is like being a sculptor’s assistant.”

Mr. Sorvino is survived by his wife, Dee Dee Sorvino; three children, Mira, Amanda and Michael; and five grandchildren.

Johnny Diaz contributed report.

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