Paul Sorvino, Memorable Character Actor in ‘GoodFellas,’ ‘Nixon,’ Dead at 83
Paul Sorvino, the celebrated character actor who could play mob kingpins, cops, presidential cabinet members, and even do Shakespeare, died Monday, July 25, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 83.
Sorvino’s wife, Dee Dee, confirmed his death, saying Sorvino died of natural causes. “Our hearts are broken, there will never be another Paul Sorvino, he was the love of my life, and one of the greatest performers to ever grace the screen and stage,” she said.
Sorvino’s daughter, Mira — who followed her father into acting and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1996 — wrote on Twitter, “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.”
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.
— Mira Sorvino (@MiraSorvino) July 25, 2022
Sorvino enjoyed a five-decade career as an actor, and is probably best known for his turn as Paulie Cicero, the mob boss based on Paul Vario, in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic GoodFellas. He also earned critical acclaim for playing Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon, and turned in memorable supporting performances in films like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Warren Beatty’s Reds. He also frequently appeared in theatrical productions and on television, even spending one season as a detective on Law and Order in the early Nineties.
Born April 13, 1939 and raised in Brooklyn, Sorvino spent years studying acting and singing at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Though he scored a handful of minor Broadway roles in the mid-Sixties, consistent work eluded him and forced him to take various jobs, including stints as a car salesman, bartender, and acting teacher. A nine-month stint in advertising, The New York Times noted, left Sorvino with an ulcer.
In the early Seventies, Sorvino gave acting another shot, and this time the work came quickly: Sorvino scored supporting roles in films like Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? and Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park. But his big break came in 1972 with a celebrated performance in Jason Miller’s Broadway play, That Championship Season (he later reprised his role in the 1982 film adaptation).
From there, Sorvino never looked back. He starred opposite James Caan in 1974’s The Gambler, portrayed the American Communist Party co-founder Louis C. Fraina in Beatty’s Reds, and played a retired Army colonel battling zombies in Larry Cohen’s horror satire The Stuff. Sorvino worked with Beatty again on his big budget Dick Tracy adaptation in 1990, the same year he appeared in GoodFellas.
In a 1992 interview with Charlie Rose, Sorvino discussed the significant challenge of playing Paulie Cicero, saying, “[W]hen you ask me to express a certain lethality, to limb the unconscious of a murderer, a killer, a person who could kiss his grandchild and order your death in the next breath, I don’t know what that is.” He added, “I kept talking to myself for two months, day in and day out, looking for the place that would justify this lethality, this coldness and yet maintain a warm side… Paulie Cicero had not killed himself off, but a certain part of him was absolutely dead. That deep part of him that was cold and dead, and I found that and when I found that, I scared myself with it.”
After the success of GoodFellas, Sorvino spent a season as Sergeant Phil Cerreta on Law & Order, while he also appeared in movies like The Rocketeer and The Firm. Along with his turns in Nixon and Romeo + Juliet, Sorvino popped up in another Beatty picture, 1998’s Bulworth, while in 1999 he directed — and had a small role in — a TV movie adaptation of That Championship Season.
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In 2012, Sorvino directed his first and only feature film, The Trouble With Cali, which also gave him the chance to work with all of his children. The movie was written by his daughter Amanda Sorvino, while his other two kids, Mira and Michael had small parts in the project.
In a 2014 interview with the Orlando Weekly, Sorvino acknowledged the way he’d been typecast throughout his career, especially as either a gangster or a cop. But he stressed not only the variety of roles he’d taken throughout his career, but all of his other endeavors. He authored two books — one about his battle with asthma, the other a cookbook co-written with his wife, Dee Dee — wrote poetry, and even sculpted with bronze (a bust he made of Jackie Robinson was displayed in Times Square in New York City in 2016). Sorvino was also an accomplished and classically trained opera tenor who got the chance to perform in a New York Opera production of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella in 2006.
While Sorvino lamented his lack of leading roles in a 1995 interview, he later came to appreciate his workhorse career, even as a largely supporting player. “I’ve come to understand and enjoy my movie career much more; it took me a long time,” he told Orlando Weekly. “But once I recognized that movie acting is a job, and a better job than heavy lifting, which I did in my youth, then you can start to enjoy the parts of it that are fun. You don’t have to take on the responsibilities of leading this wagon train across the prairie. You can just be one of the drivers. And it then can become a good job. It can become fun, as long as you have other things that give you the satisfaction of primary art, and in this case that is sculpting and writing.”