Paul Sorvino, who has died aged 83, was an industrious actor who amassed over 170 credits in a career that spanned from 1970s “New Hollywood” to latter-day cable TV. Heavyset and Italianate, he was inevitably called upon to play men with close ties to organised crime. Yet a handful of his wiseguys were unforgettable, notably Paulie Cicero, the most avuncular of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), schooling Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in the finer points of cooking behind bars.
Sorvino accepted the part with trepidation, anxious that he wouldn’t be able to summon the threat required to play “a really tough guy”: “Then I was going by the hall mirror to adjust my tie… I looked in the mirror and literally jumped back a foot. I saw […] 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.’”
Even upon seeing the film, Sorvino admitted severe reservations: “I thought I was boring, I thought that I had hurt my career, I thought that this movie should not have been made and it’s not a good movie.” Yet he soon changed his mind, persuading himself “that’s not a boring movie, that’s a good movie, that’s a great movie maybe, and I’m really good in it!”
Several prominent roles followed. Oliver Stone knowingly cast Sorvino as Henry Kissinger for Nixon (1995), and he reappeared, bejewelled in glitter, as Fulgencio Capulet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). For all Luhrmann’s razzmatazz, this may have been the role that most closely resembled Sorvino himself: the doting father, proud and protective of his offspring, forever on the brink of song.
Several months earlier, Sorvino made his highest-profile appearance of the decade: caught in the audience on Oscar night, tears streaming down his cheeks, as his daughter Mira won the Best Supporting Actress prize for her role as the straight-talking working girl in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995). Rarely has a single camera cutaway so rapidly overturned an established screen persona.
Two decades later, a New Yorker report revealed that Harvey Weinstein then had Mira Sorvino blacklisted after she rejected his advances. In a widely circulated TMZ video, the actress’s father expressed his feelings about the disgraced mogul in a way that spoke for many, while rekindling memories of the old Paulie fire: “[Weinstein]'s going to go to jail. Oh yeah… Good for him if he goes, because if not, he has to meet me… If I had known it, he would not be walking. He’d be in a wheelchair.”
He was born Paul Anthony Sorvino on April 13, 1939 in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst district to Italian immigrant parents: his father Ford Sorvino was a foreman, his mother Marietta (née Renzi) taught piano to local children. A childhood Mario Lanza fan, he attended Lafayette High School, where his inherited passion for music grew; he claimed vocal breathing techniques helped him overcome asthma.
Sorvino studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and under the influential Stanford Meisner, supporting himself with copywriting work that offered an alternative career path: “They were going to give me a third of the agency. I would have been a multi-millionaire in no time at all, but I said, ‘I have to be true to myself. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
He appeared on Broadway in the 1964 musical Bajour, and made his film debut in the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970), before appearing in several notable titles of the New Hollywood era: alongside a pre-fame Al Pacino in junkie drama The Panic in Needle Park (1971), as James Caan’s bookie in The Gambler (1974).
He won a rare lead role as a maverick NYPD detective in the Streets of San Francisco spin-off Bert D’Angelo/Superstar (1976); after its cancellation, William Friedkin cast him among the thieves in The Brink’s Job (1978) and then as the blunt police chief in Cruising (1980).
Warren Beatty recruited Sorvino to play Louis Fraina, founding member of the American Communist Party, in Reds (1981). He played Bruce Willis’s father on a 1986 episode of Moonlighting, reunited with Beatty for Dick Tracy (1990), and portrayed a rather more heroic Mafioso (“I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi!”) in Disney’s fond throwback The Rocketeer (1991).
GoodFellas led to a regular gig on primetime hit Law & Order, but he quit after two seasons, blaming a punishing schedule (“I felt like I was in the Russian gulag”). Movies kept him busy, however, and he even found outlets for his singing voice after socking over “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” as a heroin-addicted crooner in Vegas-set indie The Cooler (2003).
In 2006, he released his debut CD “Paul Sorvino Sings”, featuring covers of “Hava Nagila” and “Danny Boy”. Two years later, he essayed the trilling villain in Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), an adaptation of a cult fringe musical featuring Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton among its ensemble.
Thereafter, he worked mainly in video-on-demand fare: he played Santa in Santa Baby 2 (2009), the Mayor in Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012), Jake LaMotta’s brother in The Bronx Bull (2016), and the Shah of Iran in Price for Freedom (2017). His final substantial role came as real-life mobster Frank Costello in cable TV’s Godfather of Harlem (2019-21).
Sorvino directed twice: reunion drama That Championship Season (1999), a made-for-TV update of a Pulitzer-winning Broadway success in which he had himself appeared in 1973 (earning a Tony nomination; he also appeared in the 1982 film), and The Trouble with Cali (2012), a family drama written by his daughter Amanda.
Offscreen, he was a keen figurative sculptor, specialising in bronze, and he published Pinot, Pasta and Parties, a cookbook co-authored with his third wife, the former Republican strategist Dee Dee Sorvino.
In 2014, Sorvino reflected on his screen persona: “My goal in later life is to disabuse people of the notion that I’m a slow-moving, heavy-lidded thug… Most people’s impression of me is that – because of the success of Goodfellas – but they forget a lot of things that I've done. It would be nice to have my legacy more than that of just tough guy.”
He is survived by Dee Dee (née Benkie) and three children from his first marriage to Lorraine Davis: Mira, Amanda and Michael. His second wife was Vanessa Arico.
Paul Sorvino, born April 13, 1939, died July 25, 2022.