Paul Sorvino, master of the mild-mannered mobster, dies at 83
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Paul Sorvino, master of the mild-mannered mobster, dies at 83
Paul Sorvino at the RFK Human Rights gala in New York on Dec.12, 2018. Sorvino, the tough-guy actor — and operatic tenor and figurative sculptor — known for his roles as calm and often courteously quiet but dangerous men in films like “Goodfellas” and television shows like “Law & Order,” died on Monday, July 25, 2022. He was 83. Amy Lombard/The New York Times.

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK, NY.- Paul Sorvino, a tough-guy actor — and operatic tenor and figurative sculptor — known for his roles as calm and often courteously quiet but dangerous men in films such as “Goodfellas” and television shows such as “Law & Order,” died Monday. He was 83.

His publicist, Roger Neal, confirmed the death, at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. No specific cause was given, but Neal said Sorvino “had dealt with health issues over the past few years.”

Sorvino was the father of Mira Sorvino, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995). In her acceptance speech, she said her father had “taught me everything I know about acting.”

“Goodfellas” (1990), Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Mafia epic, came along when Sorvino was 50 and decades into his film career. His character, Paulie Cicero, was a local mob boss — lumbering, soft-spoken and ice-cold.

“Paulie might have moved slow,” says Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, his neighborhood protege in the film, “but it was only because he didn’t have to move for nobody.” (Liotta died in May at 67.)

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

That didn’t happen, he recalled, until one day when he was adjusting his necktie, looked in the mirror and saw something in his own eyes. When he saw what he called “that lethal Paulie look,” Sorvino told The Lowcountry Weekly, a South Carolina publication, in 2019, “I knew at that moment I had embraced my inner mob boss.”

He had made his mark onstage as a very different but perhaps equally soulless character in “That Championship Season,” (1972), Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy about the sad reunion of high school basketball players whose glory days are decades past. In the original Broadway production, Sorvino played Phil Romano, a small-town strip-mining millionaire arrogantly having an affair with the mayor’s wife.

Sorvino received a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a play and reprised the role in a 1982 film adaptation.

Paul Anthony Sorvino was born April 13, 1939, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the youngest of three sons of Fortunato Sorvino, known as Ford, and Marietta (Renzi) Sorvino, a homemaker and piano teacher. The elder Sorvino, a robe-factory foreman, was born in Naples, Italy, and emigrated to New York with his parents in 1907.

Paul Sorvino grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and attended Lafayette High School. His original career dream was to sing — he idolized Italian American tenor and actor Mario Lanza — and he began taking voice lessons when he was 8 years old or so.

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

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

Sorvino worked as a server and a bartender, sold cars, taught acting to children and appeared in commercials for deodorant and tomato sauce. After his first child, Mira, was born, he wrote advertising copy for nine months, but the office job gave him an ulcer.

“Most of the time I was just another out-of-work actor who couldn’t get arrested,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “I had confidence in my ability, and I was angry as hell when other people didn’t recognize it.”

Then his luck changed. He made his film debut in “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), a dark comedy directed by Carl Reiner, in a small role as a retirement-home owner. Then “That Championship Season” came along, starting with the off-Broadway production at the Public Theater.

The film role that first won him major attention was Joseph Bologna’s grouchy Italian American father in “Made for Each Other” (1971). Sorvino, almost five years younger than 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 fall victim to the cops-and-gangsters stereotype right away. In 1973, he was George Segal’s movie-producer friend in “A Touch of Class” and a mysterious government agent in “The Day of the Dolphin.”

Sorvino later played an egotistic, money-hungry evangelist with a Southern accent in the comedy “Oh, God!” (1977) and God Himself in “The Devil’s Carnival” (2012) and its 2015 sequel. He was a down-to-earth newspaper reporter in love with a ballerina in “Slow Dancing 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, complete with German accent, in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). And he played Fulgencio Capulet, Juliet’s intense father with an ancient grudge, in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996).

But in a half-century screen career, Sovino’s characters were often on the wrong side of the law. He played, among others, Chubby de Coco (“Bloodbrothers,” 1978), Lips Manlis (“Dick Tracy,” 1980), Big Mike Cicero (“How Sweet It Is,” 2013), Jimmy Scambino (“Sicilian Vampire,” 2015) and Fat Tony Salerno (“Kill the Irishman,” 2011).

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

Sorvino continued to sing professionally, making his City Opera debut in Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” in 2006.

His personal life sometimes reinforced his tough-guy image. Most recently, in 2018, when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was on trial for criminal sexual acts — and Mira Sorvino had accused him of harassment — Sorvino predicted that Weinstein would die in jail. “Because if not, he has to meet me, and I will kill the [expletive deleted] — real simple,” Sorvino said in a widely aired video interview.

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

Sorvino’s final screen roles were in 2019. He played a corrupt senator in “Welcome to Acapulco,” a spy-comedy film, 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. Sorvino’s second wife, from 1991 until their 1996 divorce, was Vanessa Arico, a real estate agent. He married Dee Dee Benkie, a Republican political strategist, in 2014.

Sorvino began making bronze sculpture in the 1970s and considered his nonperforming-arts work particularly satisfying. “That’s why I prefer it,” he told The Sun-Sentinel, a Florida newspaper, in 2005. “No one really tells you how to finish something.”

“Acting onstage is like doing sculpture,” he said. “Acting in movies is like being an assistant to the sculptor.”

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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