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A familiar face in film and on television and stage since the early 1970s, Paul Sorvino was a Tony-nominated character actor and occasional lead whose imposing presence belied the versatility of his talents. His Italian-American heritage and Brooklyn roots assured him regular employment as policemen and gangsters, both of which he essayed in projects ranging from "Law and Order" (NBC, 1990- ) to Martin Scorsese's flawless Mob epic, "Goodfellas" (1990). But Sorvino, who had trained for nearly two decades as an opera singer and ballroom dance instructor, could be counted on to tackle all manner of roles, from the philandering businessman in "That Championship Season" (1982) and Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995) to a flamboyant evangelist in Carl Reiner's "Oh, God!" (1979). He was also a regular presence in numerous television series and TV-movies, though his most memorable small-screen appearance may have been at the 1995 Academy Awards ceremony, where he wept openly for his daughter, Mira Sorvino, after she won the Oscar for "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995). Though his feature efforts became less visible after the new millennium, his body of work in all mediums cemented his status as a character actor of considerable renown.
Born Paul Anthony Sorvino in Brooklyn, NY on April 13, 1939, he was a severe asthmatic as a child, but found relief in various breathing exercises. Among these were vocal and singing lessons, which started Sorvino on his initial career path of becoming an opera singer. He eventually found favor with all manner of performance training, including ballroom dancing, which he studied as a teen in order to work as an instructor at an Arthur Murray studio. After 18 years of voice lessons, Sorvino realized that his opera dreams would go unfulfilled, but he continued to study acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. While there, he changed his focus to acting, and after graduating in 1962, landed his first stage role in the chorus of the musical "Bajour" in 1964.
Employment as an actor proved fitful, so Sorvino took a job as a copywriter at an ad agency to make ends meet. Eventually, his career developed some momentum thanks to a Tony nomination for the 1972 Broadway production of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "That Championship Season." The recognition gave a boost to Sorvino's film appearances, and he was soon making regular appearances onscreen in small but memorable roles. Many of these parts played to his immediate strengths - his physicality, alternately menacing and protective, and his salt-of-the-earth voice and carriage - but for every cop or hood in movies like "Panic in Needle Park" (1971) or "The Gambler, there were also more nuanced turns like his Gloucester opposite James Earl Jones' "King Lear" (1974) for PBS or the comedy "I Will, I Will For Now" (1976). The latter gave Sorvino a rare opportunity to show off his operatic skills in a scene where his character mimes along with a recording of "I Pagliacci."
After two brief forays into television - as a New Jersey lawyer in the Alan Alda-created sitcom "We'll Get By" (CBS, 1975), and as a tough New York cop reassigned to San Francisco in "Bert D'Angelo/Superstar" (ABC, 1976) - Sorvino returned to regular rotation as a character actor and occasional second lead. He essayed the goodfellas and city cops in "Bloodbrothers" (1979) and "Cruising" (1980) with typical aplomb, though "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978) allowed him to show his romantic side as a Jimmy Breslin-style columnist who falls for a ballerina. The TV-movie "Dummy" was another standout project that cast Sorvino as a hearing-impaired lawyer who defends a mentally challenged youth (LeVar Burton) in a murder trial. He even showed a flair for comedy in "Oh, God!" (1979) as a televangelist who comes face to face with The Almighty (George Burns).
Sorvino's career continued to diversify in the 1980s, with roles in Warren Beatty's epic "Reds" (1981) as American communist leader Louis Fraina and as philandering businessman Phil Romano, the role he created on Broadway, in the film version of "That Championship Season" (1982). Television also afforded him solid characters, like the father of a teen who commits suicide in the Emmy-winning "Surviving" (1985) and, in a one-time guest role, the father of David Addison (Bruce Willis) on "Moonlighting" (ABC, 1985-89). Sorvino also returned briefly to series work as "The Oldest Rookie" (CBS, 1987-88), a former deputy police chief who returns to detective work at age 50. A true stage thespian in his heart, Sorvino also helped to found the American Stage Company, which mounted several off-Broadway productions.
The new decade saw Sorvino in some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed productions of his career. He received rave reviews as the menacing Mafia capo Paul Cicero in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990) - an Oscar-nominated film that he initially dismissed after completion, only to change his mind after viewing. He followed up his Scorsese triumph with notable supporting roles in Beatty's "Dick Tracy" (1990) as arch crook Lips Manlis and in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995) as a note-perfect Henry Kissinger. He also took over for fellow character actor George Dzundza on "Law and Order" as Detective Phil Cerreta, who partners with Mike Logan (Chris Noth) until 1992, when a gunshot wound leaves him unable to continue as a street detective. The character's injury and departure from the series was written at the request of Sorvino, who had tired of the show's production schedule and the limited scope of the character.
In 1995, Sorvino moved many parents in the television audience of the 1995 Academy Awards when the camera captured him weeping openly as his daughter, Mira, accepted her Oscar for "Mighty Aphrodite." His own acting career continued at the same brisk clip; he was the opera-loving patriarch of the Capulets in Baz Luhrmann's revisionist take on "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996) and made his third appearance in a Warren Beatty feature with his turn as a slick political lobbyist in "Bulworth" (1998). Sorvino was also top-billed as New York Yankees manager J Torre in the Showtime production "J Torre: Curveballs Along the Way" (1997). Returning to one of his more timeless projects, he served as both director and co-star in an independently released feature film version of "That Championship Season" in 1999. He also returned to television work in 2000 with "That's Life" (CBS, 2000-02), a short-lived comedy-drama about an Italian-American family in suburban New Jersey. His feature and TV-movie career remained constant, though the projects were occasionally below his caliber of talent. Still, there were rewarding characters in the inspired-by-real-events dramas "Cheaters" (2000) and "The Thin Blue Lie" (2000), which cast him as embattled Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. He was also memorable as a doomed lounge singer in "The Cooler" (2003) opposite William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin.
In 2007, Sorvino made headlines when he was accused of brandishing a gun at a former suitor of his daughter Amanda. The ex-boyfriend had threatened Sorvino's daughter while she had hid in a hotel room, where she called both the police and her father. Sorvino arrived at the scene first, allegedly waving a gun at the young man, and was subsequently arrested after police appeared on the scene. The accusations were later dropped when it was revealed that Sorvino did not withdraw his weapon and was legally allowed to carry it, being a deputy sheriff in the state of Pennsylvania. Instead of making legal headlines, he was soon back to earning press for his film career, which by 2008 included his second turn as director with the independent feature "The Trouble with Cali" (2007) and a starring role in the cult horror-musical "Repo! The Genetic Opera" (2008), which co-starred Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton.
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Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Broadway debut in the chorus of the musical "Bajour"
Resumed acting career; made film debut in "Where's Poppa?"
Had featured role in "The Panic in Needle Park"; first feature with Al Pacino
Breakthrough stage role as Phil in the Pulitzer-winnning "That Championship Season," written by Jason Miller; earned Tony nomination
Originated character of Bert D'Angelo on an episode of ABC's "The Streets of San Francisco"
Acted in supporting role in the comedy "A Touch of Class"
TV series debut as star of the CBS sitcom "We'll Get By"
TV debut as Earl of Gloucester in Great Performances/Joseph Papp presentation of "King Lear" (PBS)
Returned to series TV as an unorthodox L.A. police detective on "Bert D'Angelo, Superstar" (ABC)
Replaced Topol in the role of the baker in the stage musical "The Baker's Wife"; toured with show in Boston and Washington, DC; was scheduled to open on Broadway but closed out of town
Had rare feature lead as a journalist who falls in love with a ballerina in "Slow Dancing in the Big City"
Portrayed a hearing-impaired attorney appointed to defend an illiterate black youth accused of murder in the fact-based "Dummy" (CBS)
Portrayed Louis Fraina in Warren Beatty's epic "Reds"
Reprised stage role in Jason Miller's film version of "That Championship Season"
Had featured role in "Surviving," an ABC drama about teen suicide; first screen teaming with Ellen Burstyn
Portrayed title character in "The Oldest Rookie," a CBS series about a police chief who becomes a rookie cop at age 50
Cast as Lips Manlis in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy"
Landed one of his best screen roles as mob boss Paul Cicero in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas"
Spent one season playing Detective Phil Cerreta on the popular NBC series "Law & Order"
Appeared as Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone's "Nixon"
Played role of the father of a Juliet-like Italian girl in the comedy "Love Is All There Is"
Cast as Capulet in Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet"
Executive produced and starred in unsold pilot for an ABC series loosely inspired by his life
Portrayed New York Yankees manager Joe Torre in the Showtime biopic "Joe Torre: Curveballs Along the Way"
Reteamed with Beatty for "Bulworth," playing a platinum-haired lobbyist
TV directing debut with Showtime remake of "That Championship Season"; also starred in role of the Coach
Had featured role in the Nicolas Cage vehicle "Family Man"
Co-starred as Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo in the fact-based "The Thin Blue Lie" (Showtime)
Played the principal who must fire a teacher who provides his students with the answers to a local competition in "Cheaters" (HBO)
Returned to series TV as Ellen Burstyn's husband in "That's Life"
Acted in the improvisational parody "Perfume"
Appeared in "The Cooler" opposite Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, and Maria Bello
Cast opposite Bernie Mac in the comedy "Mr. 3000"
Joined the cast of CBS sitcom "Still Standing" in a recurring role
Starred in the campy horror musical "Repo! The Genetic Opera"
Cast as Santa Claus in the ABC Family movie "Santa Baby 2"
Appeared in "Kill the Irishman"
Nabbed a supporting part in "The Bronx Bull"