Paul Sorvino: A Voluble Man Who Excelled as a Brick of a Mobster

When Paul Sorvino was offered the role of Paulie Cicero, the Queens-based mob underboss in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), he very much did not want to accept it. In the first place, he was a proud Italian American. A connoisseur of Italian culture, particularly food and music, he was not inclined to play a Mafioso. In addition, Sorvino, who died Monday at 83, was a voluble guy, and he liked playing voluble guys. Paulie was largely a brick. Much is made in the early scenes of the movie about how most of the criminal’s directives were executed with a mere nod.

He accepted the role anyway and went into rehearsals. A few days before shooting began, he called his agent and asked if he could bail. At a 2015 panel at the Tribeca Film Festival commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Goodfellas,” Sorvino poked a little fun at people who complimented him on his “choices” in what became one of his signature roles. He scoffed at the idea of “choices,” insisting: “I found the guy and the guy made the choices.”

“It was very difficult,” Sorvino told the panel moderator Jon Stewart. “I’m a poet, I’m an opera singer, I’m an author … none of it is gangster.” But then, for Sorvino, came a moment. In his telling at this panel, it was when he was straightening his tie. In other recountings, he was removing a bit of spinach from between his teeth. In both versions, Sorvino looked in the mirror. And there was a fixed scowl meeting him.

“I saw this guy.” And that was it.

Sorvino’s vision of Paulie was an incredibly nuanced portrayal of a man who, on the page, comes across as simple and as unpleasant as sudden death. In “Wise Guy,” the nonfiction book that was the basis of “Goodfellas,” the author Nick Pileggi wrote, “It was understood on the street that Paul Vario” — the mobster’s surname was changed for the movie — “ran one of New York’s toughest and most violent gangs.” In the Brownsville-East New York area of the city, “the body counts were always high, and in the 1960s and 1970s the Vario thugs did most of the strong-arm work,” Pileggi explained, adding later, “There were always some heads to be bashed on picket lines, businessmen to be squeezed into making their loan-shark payments, independents to be straightened out over territorial lines, potential witnesses to be murdered, and stool pigeons to be buried.”

Vario, then, was a middle manager of mayhem. Sorvino played him as a guy who kept his cool and tried to keep his underlings in line.

Much of “Goodfellas” (streaming on HBO Max) is devoted to how three underlings, played by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, did not stay in line. Paulie can be a tolerant and affectionate “dad.” Sorvino uses his natural warmth when greeting “good earner” Jimmy (De Niro) at a back-room casino early in the movie. Later, overseeing elaborate dinners in prison, he has a special system for slicing garlic, and once his cellmate Henry (Liotta) enters bearing wine and Scotch, he proclaims, “Now we can eat.” Presiding over a celebration of Henry’s release from the joint, he’s Uncle Paulie.

But it’s when he’s playing the brick that Sorvino kills. At that celebration, he brings Henry into his backyard. Henry had been dealing drugs in prison, with Paulie’s tacit approval. Now in fixed-scowl mode, Paulie tells Henry to “stay away from the garbage.” When Henry plays dumb, Paulie isn’t having it. “Don’t make a jerk out of me. Just don’t do it.” Without losing any of the character’s outer-borough intonations, Sorvino clips the words like he’s snapping necks.

Henry and his merry men are either paying tribute to Paulie with a percentage of their ill-gotten gains or lying to his face. These character dynamics are complicated — Paulie seems too sharp to not know he’s being deceived, but what can he do about it? One thing he can do is eliminate Joe Pesci’s Tommy from the group, using brother Tuddy Cicero (Frank DiLeo) as his lethal proxy.

Paulie’s final words to Henry — “Now I gotta turn my back” — are as chilling as any of the movie’s grisliest sights.

Sorvino’s decades-long career was checkered. One of his first leading roles was as a male rape victim in a highly misbegotten 1974 ABC Movie of the Week called “It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy.” In the 1974 version of “The Gambler” (available to rent or buy on major platforms) he played his first mob-adjacent character, a bookie named Hips, but this character was no Paulie: he has a genuine personal affection for the title character (James Caan), Hips’s most screwed-up and indebted client.

For another taste of the more voluble Sorvino, his turn as Curtis Mahoney, a federal agent posing as an investigative journalist in Mike Nichols’s much-maligned 1974 “The Day of the Dolphin” (available on Kino Now), is worth looking into. Far from an accomplished mole, Mahoney is a too-chatty bumbler. Sorvino is also memorable as Edelson, the commanding officer of the undercover cop Burns (Al Pacino) in William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (from 1980; rent or buy on major platforms). Assigning his underling to work the gay sex-club underworld of Manhattan in search of a killer, Edelson inquires into Burns’s sexual history with the most blunt question imaginable, not batting an eyelash.

Both before and after “Goodfellas,” Sorvino was a regular presence in pictures directed by and starring Warren Beatty, most recently “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016). Sorvino’s post-“Goodfellas” filmography veered between solid character roles in indies like “The Cooler” (2003) and James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (2014) and the usual gigging-actor dreck.

In 2018 the world learned how passionate Sorvino could be offscreen. Responding to revelations of abuse and blackballing that his daughter, the actor Mira Sorvino, endured at the hands of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, Sorvino told TMZ he hoped Weinstein would do jail time: “Because if not, he has to meet me.” Sorvino then related in no uncertain terms what would happen.

The role of a proud father driven to indignant, justified rage was one that suited this performer well enough. But one wishes that he hadn’t been obliged to live it.

Glenn Kenny is a critic and the author of “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas.’”

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