Paul Sorvino was not a wise guy. But he was a tough guy.
He stood up for his family. He stood up for himself. And when he died July 25, of natural causes at age 83, he left behind a legacy of great performances.
At least one iconic one, too — Paulie, the mob boss in “Goodfellas,” the guy who “didn’t have to move for anybody,” who could wipe away years of friendship with “Now, I gotta turn my back on you.” Certainly that is the role most people will remember.
But Sorvino would want you to remember other things he did, too.
Playing the fiery Communist activist in Warren Beatty’s “Reds.” Working the right side of the law as a detective on TV’s “Law & Order.” The Tony nomination he received for “That Championship Season.” And, of course, singing opera, his lifelong passion.
All of which still took second place to his role as proud, protective papa to three children, especially his two daughters.
In fact, when Mira became one of Harvey Weinstein’s victims, sexually harassed and then blacklisted when she wouldn’t give in, the other thing Mira wouldn’t do was tell her father. Because if she did, she admitted later, she knew he’d want to settle things himself.
And that was probably wise of her.
“He’s going to go to jail, oh yeah,” Sorvino said when he finally found out about Weinstein. “That son of a bitch. Good for him if he goes, because if not, he has to meet me. And I will kill the motherfucker. Real simple. If I had known it, he would not be walking. He’d be in a wheelchair.”
It wasn’t just talk.
Years before, when Sorvino’s other daughter, Amanda, was being threatened by an ex-boyfriend, she quickly made two calls, to her father and to the police. Her father showed up first, armed. It’s probably a good thing the police arrived soon after.
You didn’t mess with Paul Sorvino’s family.
Born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1939, he grew up with a love of music — his mother was a piano teacher — and an appreciation of the written word. He worked in an advertising agency for a while, but always took voice lessons, and eventually enrolled at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He made his Broadway debut in 1964.
He married his first wife, Lorraine Davis, two years later, and they settled in Tenafly, where they started a family. Sorvino commuted into the city for stage work and started getting parts in New-York-based films, like “Where’s Poppa?,” “The Panic in Needle Park” and “Made for Each Other.”
Eventually bigger parts, and bigger movies followed.
Sorvino never won an Oscar, was never even nominated. Still, it’s impossible that getting one could have made him any happier than he was the night in 1996 when Mira won in the Best Supporting Actress category for “Mighty Aphrodite.” When she thanked him from the stage, he practically collapsed in joyful tears.
“My father the great Paul Sorvino has passed,” Mira tweeted on July 25. “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 certainly could have won his own Oscar for “Goodfellas,” though it was a role he almost didn’t take. It wasn’t just that he’d always resisted the stereotype of the mobbed-up Italian; it was that he didn’t think he could conjure up that ice-cold character. He begged his agent to get him out of the deal.
Then, right before shooting started, Sorvino looked at himself in the mirror and saw his eyes go dead. Suddenly, he saw who Paulie really was.
The funny thing was, Sorvino didn’t even like the movie the first time he saw it.
“I thought it was boring, excessively violent and not a good movie,” he confessed later. “I thought I was boring, I thought that I had hurt my career, I thought that this movie should not have been made.” He said it took a few hours for the power of the film — and his own performance — to sink in.
Few of the parts that followed ever approached the depth of Paulie Cicero (although more than a few tried to trade on it.)
Professionally, though, Sorvino never stopped working. Personally, after his first marriage ended in 1988, he would go on to marry twice more. When he died, he was with his third wife, Dee Dee Benkie, and living in Indiana.
But wherever he lived, he was always, on some level, that fiercely loyal family guy from Jersey. And whatever he played, he was always more of an actor than most people realized.
“Most people think I’m either a gangster or a cop or something, but the reality is I’m a sculptor, a painter, a best-selling author, many, many things — a poet, an opera singer, but none of them is gangster,” he said a little sadly in 2014. “They forget that I was also Dr. Kissinger in ‘Nixon,’ the deaf lawyer in ‘Dummy’ — 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.”
Well, not “just.” But tough he certainly was. In the best way.
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