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A Complicated Man: Paul Sorvino (1939-2022)

In 1996, Mira Sorvino was the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite.” Her acceptance speech produced one of the most indelibly emotional Oscar moments. “When you give me this award,” she said in her acceptance speech, “you honor my father, Paul Sorvino, who has taught me everything I know about acting.” Cut to Sorvino, sitting in the audience, weeping and burying his face in his hands. 

This is not the imposing and intimidating Paul Sorvino to which audiences were accustomed to seeing.

In 2018, Sorvino was approached by celebrity news site TMZ for a reaction to the breaking news that producer and studio mogul Harvey Weinstein had allegedly sexually harassed his daughter and blacklisted her in the industry. Sorvino did not disappoint them. “"He ought to hope that he goes to jail,” he said coolly. “He’s gonna go to jail. Oh yeah. That son of a bitch. Because if not, he has to meet me. And I will kill the motherf**ker. Real simple."

Now that’s the Paul Sorvino with whom audiences are more familiar.

That clip went viral anew when it was reported Monday that Sorvino had died of natural causes at the age of 83, as did the moving Oscar memory

So indelible was his 6-foot-4-inch presence, that he is typecast in most people’s eyes as characters on the wrong side of the law, most notably Paulie Cicero, the menacingly quiet mob boss and father figure to eventual mob turncoat Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”

“Goodfellas” would have been my go-to movie to watch in his honor had I not re-watched it just last May following star Ray Liotta’s death. So a master of his domain was Cicero that a clip just of him preparing a meal in prison and slicing an onion with a razor has been viewed on YouTube more than 67,000 times. One of the most devastating scenes in the film is one of the quietest: when Cicero informs Liotta’s Hill, who was once like a son to him, but now is exposed as a drug dealer, “Now, I’m gonna have to turn my back on you.”

It may surprise some that his best-known role was out of his comfort zone, and his iconic performance might never have happened if he had had his way about it, according to a New York Times oral history:

“I would have done a 'Dinner is served' role in a Scorsese picture, that’s how much I wanted to work with him. I met with him and saw immediately he wanted me for the role. I was overjoyed but very worried. I’d done a lot of comedies as well as dramas, but I’d never done a really tough guy. I never had it in me. And this called for a lethality, which I felt was way beyond me. I called my manager three days before we started shooting and said: 'Get me out. I’m going to ruin this great man’s picture, and I’m going to ruin myself.' Then I was going by the hall mirror to adjust my tie. I was just inconsolable. And I looked in the mirror and literally jumped back a foot. I saw a look I’d never seen, something in my eyes that alarmed me. A deadly soulless look in my eyes ... And I looked to the heavens and said, 'You’ve found it.'"

Sorvino’s 60-year career (he made his Broadway debut in 1964 as a member of the chorus in Bajour), spanned theater, movies, and television. But he was no overnight sensation. Just one year before he made his Tony nominated breakthrough as a morally-challenged millionaire in Jason Miller’s play, That Championship Season, he was making commercials for Arrid deodorant and Hunt’s Tomato Sauce, according to a 1972 New York Times profile written by Patricia Bosworth.

Such is the life of a character actor, and as with the best of that noble breed, Sorvino, made lesser projects better and great projects greater with his distinctive presence. My favorite scene in Sydney Pollack’s “The Firm” that does not include Holly Hunter was Sorvino’s late-in-the-film appearance as a mobster who is unexpectedly visited by the very lawyer he wants to get his “f**kin’ hands on.” His looks-could-kill glare at Tom Cruise speaks volumes.

One more gangster: Eddie Valentine in Joe Johnston’s cult favorite The Rocketeer,” a 1930s hood who may not make an honest buck, but he draws the line at collaborating with Nazis (“I’m 100-percent American.”)

Better a Sorvino binge to truly appreciate the breadth and depth of the eclectic characters he embodied. He made his film debut in Carl Reiner’s cult classic black comedy “Where’s Poppa” as the beleaguered proprietor of a retirement home (“Sometimes they go in the middle of the night and I don’t find out about it ‘til morning”).

Other memorable roles in his filmography that speak to his non-gangster versatility: Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” Juliet’s father in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” and an unscrupulous televangelist in Reiner’s “Oh, God!”) (“GOD. SENT HIM. TO ME.”)

He costarred in four films directed by Warren Beatty, “Reds,” “Dick Tracy,” “Bulworth” and the underseen “Rules Don’t Apply.”

Sorvino recreated his Broadway triumph onscreen in the 1982 screen adaptation of That Championship Season and directed a 1999 made-for-television version starring Gary Sinise, Tony Shalhoub, Terry Kinney, and in the part he originated, Vincent D’Onofrio.

He was afforded a rare leading romantic role as a Jimmy Breslin-esque newspaper man who falls in love with an ailing ballerina in John Avildson’s “Slow Dancing in the Big City.” In his three-star review, Roger Ebert wrote approvingly, “Corny? There hasn’t been a cornier romantic tear-jerker since ‘Love Story.’ It’s a classic of melodramatic overachievement. I love it.”

His most well-known stint on television, although he decried the working conditions, was his one-and-done season in the Dick Wolf-verse as NYPD sergeant Phil Ceretta in the original incarnation of “Law & Order.”

“Renaissance Man” is a title that fits Sorvino. He described himself in one interview as a poet, a singer (he recorded three CDs and performed opera with several distinguished companies), a musician, a director, a composer and a writer (the 1985 bestseller How to Become a Former Asthmatic). He was also a sculptor. 

The tweets issued following news of his passing speak to the esteem in which he is held by other character actors. Posted Jason Alexander, “From Baker's Wife on Bway to Shakespeare in the Park to all the incredible film/TV roles—he was magnificent in all.” Patton Oswalt referenced an obscure line from “Goodfellas” (because of course he did): “There are a few less onions in the sauce today.”

“Slow Dancing” aside, Sorvino did lament in interviews that he never got to carry a feature film, but his was a singular career. In a 1992 conversation with Charlie Rose, Sorvino was asked, “If you could be someone, who would it be?” He responded, “Paul Sorvino. Good heavens, why would I want to be anyone else?” 

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly.

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