Where does one even begin with Paul Sorvino? Leaning into GoodFellas is the most obvious point of entry, yet how can we ignore the fact that the man’s career covered six decades and a whopping 172 credits? Sure, Martin Scorsese’s stone-cold classic from 1990 might be Sorvino’s most memorable performance, but spending all one’s words on just that one film (no matter how great it is) is to a disservice to a film career that started way back in 1970 when he made his screen debut in Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? with George Segal and Ruth Gordon.
Sorvino became a quick staple of the auteur era of the ‘70s, turning up in such notable films as The Panic in Needle Park, A Touch of Class, The Gambler, Oh God!, and Bloodbrothers. The last of those films is my first memory of him. As “Chubby” the older brother of Stony (Richard Gere) in Robert Mulligan’s coming of age story (based on a novel by Richard Price), Sorvino delivers one of the most hilarious toss away lines ever about how little consideration he gives his wife’s pleasure when, er, giving his wife pleasure. I won’t even type it out here, but I recall snorting like the nerdiest film geek on earth (which I might have been at the time).
I later saw The Gambler, which contains what is arguably his first truly great performance. As “Hips,” the bookie who likes James Caan’s college professor by day, degenerate gambler by night well enough, he makes it clear that he will have the prof’s thumbs broken if he doesn’t pay up, and right soon. One of the gifts that I thought Sorvino had in great abundance was the ability to go from charming to threatening. There were times when he would go from one affect to another, but often, he would act out both attributes simultaneously. He wasn’t snapping, he was smiling and warning you all in the same breath and expression. He was formidable. It’s a trait that served him well throughout his journey through film and television.
The ‘80s weren’t quite as memorable for Sorvino, although roles in Warren Beatty’s Reds, the film version of Jason Miller’s play That Championship Season (Sorvino also appeared in the same part on Broadway in 1972), the very popular mini-series Chiefs, and he also had a terrific turn as David Addison Sr. on Moonlighting as Bruce Willis’ character’s father. I also have a soft spot for I, The Jury, one of the sleaziest neo-noirs from that decade (which is really saying something), in which he played across from an overheated Armand Assante as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and a frequently underclothed Barbara Carrera. It ain’t art, but it surely is something.
That ability to shift from charm to malice was in full effect as the ‘80s gave birth to the ‘90s and Sorvino took on the role of Paulie in GoodFellas. In a film stacked to the gills with great performances up and down the call sheet, Sorvino still made his mark. His final scene with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) when he gives him a few bucks while slow-cooking some amazingly delicious looking Italian sausages and then says, “Now, I gotta turn my back on you,” is truly iconic.
A nice role in the old-fashioned cult favorite The Rocketeer followed. Sorvino then took on the role of Sergeant Phil Ceretta for portions of two seasons on NBC’s endless Law & Order series. Sydney Pollack used his recent GoodFellas mobster past to excellent effect in a cameo near the end of the Tom Cruise blockbuster, The Firm. I also dearly loved his work as Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, in which he played the polarizing former secretary of state as if he were born in the man’s shoes. His small part as a hit-man is absolutely devastating in Warren Beatty’s last great film, the political comedy/drama Bulworth. Sorvino closed out the ‘90s by acting and making his directorial debut in a televised version of That Championship Season.
The final twenty-plus years of Sorvino’s career were made up of the occasional high and a lot of, “he was in that?” kinds of productions. No matter where he turned up though, you knew to fix your eyes on him and focus on whatever he was looking at. Sorvino was an actor of physical and heft and command. He never sleep walked through anything and he made everything he was in better.
In fact, I can’t think of a single time I saw him on screen that I didn’t break into a smile as soon as he made his first appearance. For an actor of such immense talent, who gave us so many great performances, Sorvino was seldom recognized by awards groups. He was never nominated for an Oscar or an Emmy. His only recognition from a major awards group was from the screen actor’s guild which nominated the ensemble of Nixon for “Outstanding Performance by a Cast.”
You know what though? That really doesn’t matter. Awards are just hunks of metal. Memories are lasting, and as someone once said, “film is forever.”
So will our memories of Paul Sorvino be.
Paul Sorvino died yesterday. He was 83 years old.