Paul Sorvino, the burly character actor who played forceful types, most notably the coldhearted mobster Paulie Cicero in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, has died. He was 83.
Sorvino, the father of Oscar-winning actress Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), died Monday of natural causes, his wife, Dee Dee, announced. “Our hearts are broken; there will never be another Paul Sorvino; he was the love of my life and one of the greatest performers ever to grace the screen and stage,” she said.
During a solid career that spanned a half-century, Sorvino portrayed James Caan’s bookie in The Gambler (1974), Claire Danes’ pushy father in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996), Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and a strung-out heroin addict in The Cooler (2003).
He played a founder of the American Communist Party in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) and worked alongside the actor-director again in Dick Tracy (1990), Bulworth (1998) and Rules Don’t Apply (2016).
A respected tenor who realized a dream when he performed for the New York Opera at Lincoln Center in 2006, the Brooklyn native also starred for a season as Det. Phil Cerretta, the partner of Chris Noth’s Det. Mike Logan, on NBC’s Law & Order.
In 1973, Sorvino received a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award for his performance as the unscrupulous Phil Romano — one of the four former high school basketball players who reunite to visit their old coach — in the original Broadway production of Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
He reprised the role for a 1982 film, then played the coach in a 1999 Showtime telefilm for which he also made his directorial debut. He returned to Scranton, Pennsylvania, the setting of That Championship Season, to star in and helm his only feature, The Trouble With Cali (2012).
Still, Sorvino is probably best known for his turn as Cicero, who loved a good meal and sliced his garlic with a razor blade, in the ultra-violent GoodFellas (1990), which Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese adapted from Pileggi’s 1986 nonfiction book.
In a 2015 New York Times piece on the 25th anniversary of the movie, Sorvino said he was overjoyed to get the part — and scared to death.
“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,” he said. “And this [part] 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.’ He, being wise, said, ‘Call me tomorrow, and if necessary I will get you out.’
“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 that scared me and was overwhelmingly threatening. And I looked to the heavens and said, ‘You’ve found it.’ “
A commanding 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds in his prime, Sorvino also played men on the wrong side of the law in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), William Friedkin’s The Brink’s Job (1978), The Rocketeer (1991) and The Firm (1993).
“There are many people who think I’m actually a gangster or a mafioso, largely because of Goodfellas,” he once said. “I suppose that’s the price you pay for being effective in a role.”
He could be a big softie, though. When his daughter took the stage to accept her best supporting actress Oscar in 1996, Sorvino was seen in the audience, weeping joyfully.
Sorvino was born on April 13, 1939, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. His father was an Italian immigrant who worked in a robe factory, and his mother was a housewife and piano teacher. His parents argued frequently, and he spent time living in California with his mom before graduating from Lafayette High School in 1956.
Sorvino said he was always fascinated with the human voice and sang in Catskills hotels as a teenager. He took lesson after lesson and dreamed of becoming an opera singer, but an affliction with asthma made him focus on acting.
He attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, studied with Sanford Meisner and William Esper and cut his chops on the stage.
Learning to control his asthma with breathing exercises — he would later found the Sorvino Children’s Asthma Foundation and pen a 1985 book, How to Become a Former Asthmatic — Sorvino made his Broadway debut as a singing patrolman in the musical comedy Bajour in 1964.
Sorvino appeared on the screen for the first time in Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1970), then played Joseph Bologna’s dad in Made for Each Other (1971), George Segal‘s movie-producer friend in A Touch of Class (1973) and a government agent in Mike Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (1973).
In 1975, Sorvino took a crack at a TV series when he played a middle-class New Jersey lawyer in We’ll Get By, a CBS show created by Alan Alda. The comedy, however, lasted just 12 episodes. The next year, he starred as a maverick cop in the Streets of San Francisco spinoff Bert D’Angelo, Superstar. That was canceled after 11 episodes.
Talking about his one season (1991-92) on Law & Order, Sorvino did not wax nostalgic. “I felt like I was in the Russian gulag,” he said. “There was absolutely no communication with the writers and the producers, and we had to work under the worst conditions.”
He quit the show, and Logan got a new partner, Det. Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).
Sorvino also played the cop who sends Al Pacino under cover in Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and portrayed detectives in I, The Jury (1982) and as the title character in another short-lived CBS show, 1987-88’s The Oldest Rookie.
He portrayed Bruce Willis’ father on ABC’s Moonlighting and with Raymond Burr ailing, stepped in to play a visiting attorney in a Perry Mason telefilm, 1993’s The Case of the Wicked Wives.
He also starred with Ellen Burstyn and Kevin Dillon on the 2000-02 CBS dramedy That’s Life.
Sorvino’s résumé also included Reiner’s Oh, God! (1977), Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978), Bloodbrothers (1978), Lost and Found (1979), the 1979 telefilm Dummy, Turk 182! (1985), The Stuff (1985), A Fine Mess (1986), Money Talks (1997), Plan B (2001), Perfume (2001), Mr. 3000 (2004) and The Bronx Bull (2016).
More recently, he played Frank Costello on the Epix series Godfather of Harlem.
In a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, Sorvino lamented that he was never given a chance to carry a studio picture. “I’ve been to the mountaintop, but I haven’t been the guy,” he said. “I’ve been a passenger on the bus, but I haven’t been the driver.”
Sorvino sang the role of Alfred in Die Fledermaus with the Seattle Opera Company in 1981 and years later starred in a revival of The Most Happy Fella at Lincoln Center. He also recorded three CDs.
Sorvino married his third wife, Dee Dee Benkie, a GOP strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush, in 2014. They had met on Fox News Channel’s Your World With Neil Cavuto.
He had dealt with health issues the past few years, she said, and will be interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Survivors include his other children, Amanda and Michael, and five grandchildren.
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