The legendary actor Paul Sorvino is most identified with playing Wise Guys, tough guys, made men. And the fact he can play them so well is a testament to his talent and technique as an actor.
Sorvino came to Long Island for the Gold Coast International Film Festival where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award and, where his new film, “How Sweet It Is,” was screened.
Sorvino’s career spans over 140 movies, six television series, two operas, three Broadway plays, plus musicals on Broadway and at major theaters across the country.
For his role in the play, “That Championship Season,” he won six awards including the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actor, Drama Desk, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and Clarence Derwent awards and was nominated for a Tony. He reprised the role for the 1981 film version, which was shot in Scranton.
In 1987, he founded the American Stage Company at Fairleigh Dickinson University, which has become one of the most successful regional theaters in America.
The characters that Sorvino created, over and over, is a genuine reflection of talent, not who he is.
Though he originally had his heart set on opera, he became exposed to drama while studying at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and later, when he studied with Sanford Meisner.
But he confessed that at the beginning, he was a mediocre actor.
“I had to study so hard to be an actor – nothing I did was right. I was despairing. I thought it was good thing I could sing because I would never be an actor. I gave myself nothing but hard work – I would get others to do exercises with me after school.
“I said to myself I would never be a great actor but I could learn to act.
“I developed an iron technique because I worked so hard. You have to obey the rules of the game. To learn them, you have to learn technique. Technique allows whatever you have inside you to flourish, allows your talent to display itself.
Sorvino grew up in Brooklyn and attended Lafayette High school – in fact, after the Q&A, a high school classmate came up to him with their yearbook.
Sorvino’s father came from Naples; his mother was raised in Connecticut, a gifted pianist who won a Juilliard Scholarship but her father was too proud for her to take it, and she became a piano teacher.
But he says, his family goes back hundreds of years in Italy – the family’s coat of arms dates from 1150 and it is believed that his ancestor was a Templar knight. Sorvino himself was made a Knight of Italy, a distinction that will be passed on to his descendents – which is when he first became aware of his family’s noble lineage.
Learning that he came from nobility did not surprise him, he told the gala audience when he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award. “My aunts acted like countesses.. my father was dignified, like a nobleman, the way he carried himself. He was in the garment industry, had enormous talent, magic hands – he made my mother’s wedding dress… A gifted man, beautifully spoken with 8th grade education.”
“My family is noble, our coat of arms goes back to the 12th century. I’m actually an Italian Knight. I think its interesting that if my noble family could see far into the future they would look and say what is he doing? There was a time when I said no more Mafia that’s it, because it’s so far from me. I am a poet, a musician, a pianist. I play the guitar, I sing, I write, I’m a director, and a sculptor. There are so many things I do and none of them is gangster. You know it can get a little tiring. But then in the last couple of years the roles got better. So you just take the better role. I realized you can’t categorize yourself or a form of writing. You have to look at what’s best. You can’t say this is all I do, and that is what I don’t do. You take the best material that you can get and you do it.”
How Sweet it Is, is an entertaining musical comedy carried along by the charming characters played by an outstanding cast led by Joe Piscopo and Sorvino, It’s like a satire of a cliche of the whole “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” genre with stereotypical mobsters, druggies, transvestites, and FBI guys. Piscopo plays an alcoholic, down-in-the-dumps formerly much revered and honored director of musical theater who needs to put together a successful musical in order to pay off his mob debt. In three weeks, yet! And what is more, the Mob Guy – played by who else, Paul Sorvino – has his own idea: candy as metaphor for addiction. It’s Willy Wonka meets Mickey Rooney, meets Goodfellas meets Dick Tracy (Sorvino was in two of those.)
But what stands out is that the premise for the musical, that the Piscopo guy is really a genius actually plays out, as you see this most absurd, ridiculous concept actually take shape. But the movie is also a demonstration of what Regina Gil, executive director of the Gold Coast International Film Festival and Gold Coast Arts Center has been saying for decades: that through the arts, struggling people can find a different path to fulfilling their potential.
Meanwhile, one of the most delightful features of the Gold Coast International Film Festival, now in its third year in the town of North Hempstead on Long Island, is not just seeing movies before they are released, but also getting to hear from the creators – directors, producers, writers and in this case, the actor Paul Sorvino.
Sorvino, who was honored by the festival with the Lifetime Achievement Award, is known for portraying tough-guy characters, but during his Q&A, he demonstrated a score of accents and personalities in roles. Over the course of four decades, he has appeared in movies, TV and on stage, including his much heralded performance in “That Championship Season” a role he reprised in the 1981 film. He is probably best known, though, for his role as Paul Cicero in “Goodfellas” (1990).
And in “How Sweet It Is,” he plays a cliche of the mob boss character for which he is so well known. (He said that when he read the script, “I thought would be entertaining, I’m a little tired of doing mob guys, I’ve done lots of other kinds of roles, but that’s the one people remember.)
Indeed, he is so much more diversified: he played Henry Kissinger in “Nixon” (1995, Fulgericio Capulet in the innovative1996 version of “Romeo + Juliet,” directed by Baz Luhrmann.
He said that his original interest was to be an opera singer – we first meet him in “How Sweet It Is” he is singing an aria. At the Q&A which followed the movie, he thrills the audience by giving us a rendition of the aria, and a taste of his virtuosity, and easily shifting from characters and accents.
Reflecting on the technique of being an actor, he points to the movie “Bulworth,” with Warren Beatty, he played a Southern insurance salesman.
“It was decided by me and Warren that I would be gay- so we shot it two ways – gay and with only an indication of being gay.”
He talked about the challenge of playing a scene in which he is supposed to make a pass at Warren Beatty. “Actors can believe anything – a good actor uses imagination, manipulating yourself so you find reality. The behavior you are looking for comes from within you.” So to work himself up to making a pass at Beatty, he said, “I convinced myself that Beatty is a woman, wearing a mask. One take. Bang, I was in love with Warren! That’s what actors have to do.
“The business of acting is really the business of children playing. A really good artist of any kind – music, painting – you are in the business of creating something from inside yourself. Technique allows you to display that. The whole story of being an actor is learning ways to move yourself the way you want to.
“You imagine, in order to conjure up hatred for another character. “You get to a point where it’s all; there. The amateur works when he is inspired, the professional works when he is uninspired.
“A potter is a noble profession – works with the same tools as a sculptor – but it is not in him to be an artist. There are people who raise a skill to an art, not a craftsman but an artist. We all want to get to that point where it takes over us. An actor, sculptor, writer – you get to a point where comes from your unconscious – learn how to tap it. It is a subject I never tire of: the quest for art.”
Now he is planning to do his own updated, Americanized version of King Lear, set in 1905 with Robber Barons, and possibly filming at The Breakers, in Newport.
“We [America] are an island. It is entirely possible that American speech is closer to the language of Shakespeare” than the affected English that is presented on the Shakespearean stage (and he goes into dialect and then does it in a sensitive American. “Using the American speech gets your attention. Shakespeare in American language is much more beautiful.”
His style of directing, he said, is to prepare and rehearse in advance, rather than film every take. “They call me One-Take Sorvino,” he says, noting that the two episodes of “That’s Life” that he directed were done at a fraction of the cost and with no overtime.
With all his success as an actor, though, Sorvino says that besides his extraordinary children (his daughter is the Academy-award winning actress Mira Sorvino), and his grandchildren, he is most proud of the Sorvino Asthma Foundation.
He suffered from asthma until he was 25 – his son almost died of it – and Sorvino worked hard at developing various breathing techniques and exercises to bring it under control.. He wrote a bestselling book, “How to Become a Former Asthmatic.” A video has just been released, which can be downloaded.
“It’s dear to my heart, more important to me than my career.”
At the Gala where the Gold Coast International Film FEstival presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, “I labored hard over the past half century. I’ve had wonderful experiences and some not so wonderful experience,” he told the gala audience. “But I am grateful to be able to touch people in a way that only film could do.
“I thank the Gold Coast Film Festival for honoring me, once again confirming the fact my work has not been in vain. You here are supporters of the festival, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner
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