Remembering Goodfellas actor Paul Sorvino
Paul Sorvino, who distinguished himself in a long line of stage and screen performances including Goodfellas and “Law & Order,” died July 25 of natural causes, according to his rep. He was 83.
His wife, DeeDee Sorvino, posted on Instagram, saying, “I am completely devastated. The love of my life & the most wonderful man who has ever lived is gone. I am heartbroken.”
Sorvino, who was the father of actress Mira Sorvino, was perhaps best known for his role as Sgt. Frank Cerreta on NBC’s “Law & Order,” as Mafia don Pail Cicero in Martin Scorsese’s beloved gangster film Goodfellas and as Kissinger in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
Mira Sorvino tweeted, “My father the great Paul Sorvino has passed. My heart is rent asunder - a life of love and joy and wisdom with him is over. He was the most wonderful father. I love him so much. I’m sending you love in the stars Dad as you ascend.”
Sorvino worked continually, with more than 170 credits and dozens of roles in recent years including guest appearances in “Godfather of Harlem,” “Bad Blood,” Undercover Grandpa, “The Goldbergs” and “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.”
He was one of the motley crew of heavily made up villains, Lips Manlis, assembled for the highly stylized crime drama “Dick Tracy,” starring and directed by Warren Beatty.
Beatty cast Sorvino in four of his five films as a director—in the Communist history film “Reds, in 1998 political satire Bulworth, in which he played the head of a large insurance company who wants a political favor from the senator portrayed by Beatty, and again in the ill-fated Rules Don’t Apply.
In Stone’s Nixon Sorvino played Secretary of State and close Nixon confidant Henry Kissinger; the next year he played Fulgencio Capulet, patriarch of the Capulets, in Baz Luhrmann’s Miami-set take on Romeo & Juliet. He also played a mob boss who’s ruthlessly seeking the futuristic jet pack at the center of the story in 1991’s The Rocketeer.
In 1982 Sorvino returned to the role of Phil Romano in That Championship Season—in which he had appeared on Broadway in 1974—when playwright Jason Miller adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the bigscreen. The film also starred Robert Mitchum as the former basketball coach and Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and Martin Sheen as other members of the team that gather for a reunion that will, in fact, see much disharmony come to light. Sorvino directed the 1999 TV adaptation that starred Vincent D’Onofrio.
The actor was afforded the rare chance to play a romantic lead in the 1978 film Slow Dancing in the Big City, directed by John Avildsen right after he helmed Rocky, but the story of a newspaper columnist who’s a big lug (but one who’s famous around New York) who’s paired with a dying dancer played by Anne Ditchburn was definitively sunk by a sentimental script.
Mostly, Sorvino provided characterful support his many films, as in William Friedkin’s 1979 heist film The Brink’s Job and in A Touch of Class opposite Glenda Jackson and George Segal. In the 1976 movie I Will... I Will... For Now, starring Elliott Gould and Diane Keaton, Sorvino, playing a lawyer in this sex farce, was “the only good thing in it,” said Roger Ebert.
In 2008’s Repo! The Genetic Musical, which was critically pilloried, Sorvino was stuck playing a mob boss again—one who traffics in human organs— but the role did afford him the opportunity to sing arias on the bigscreen.
The actor worked at least as much in television as he did on the bigscreen. Sorvino spent some time as part of the “Law & Order” franchise; after George Dzundza left, he played Sgt. Frank Cerreta, the partner of Christopher Noth’s Det. Mike Logan, for a single season in 1991-92.
In a 1994 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the actor appeared as the Klingon Worf’s human foster brother, Dr. Nikolai Rozhenko. In 1986 he guested on “Moonlighting,” playing the father of Bruce Willis’ David Addison.
Sorvino gave a moving performance to go alongside that of Levar Burton in the 1979 TV movie Dummy, in which Burton played a deaf-mute who had never learned to write or sign and thus had no way to communicate himself—or defend himself when he’s wrongfully charged with murder—until a empathetic, hearing-impaired attorney played by Sorvino takes his case.
In addition to his work on Law & Order,” Sorvino starred in a number of series with brief runs: CBS’ Alan Alda-created 1975 sitcom “We’ll Get By,” with Sorvino as a New Jersey lawyer with a family; ABC’s 1976 series “Bert D’Angelo/Superstar,” in which he played a San Francisco cop; and CBS’ 1987-88 crime drama “The Oldest Rookie.”
Sorvino was born in Brooklyn to Italian-Americans. He spoke fluent Italian and originally aimed to become an opera singer. He studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, where he first explored acting; he also studied with acting master Sanford Meisner. In the early ‘60s Sorvino made a living singing at charity balls.
The actor made his Broadway debut in the musical Bajour in 1964. The next year he appeared in comic play Mating Dance; unsure if he wanted to continue acting, he worked as an executive at an advertising firm.
After co-starring on Broadway in That Championship Season in 1974, he starred the same year in Murray Schisgal’s An American Millionaire. In 1976 Sorvino directed the play Wheelbarrow Closers on Broadway, but its run was brief.
Sorvino made his screen debut with small roles in Where’s Poppa? in 1970 and in The Panic in Needle Park the next year.
In 2012 he directed the indie film The Trouble With Cali, scripted by his daughter Amanda Sorvino.
As a sufferer of severe asthma —which made a singing career more difficult—the actor launched the Sorvino Asthma Foundation and wrote a bestselling book called How to Become a Former Asthmatic.
In addition to his wife and his daughter Mira, Sorvino is survived by a son Michael, a daughter Amanda and five grandchildren.