Paul Sorvino: A dynamic man who excelled as a mobster’s brick.

When Paul Sorvino was offered the role of Queens-based mob underboss Pauly Cicero in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), he didn’t want to accept it. First, he was a proud Italian American. A connoisseur of Italian culture, especially food and music, he was not inclined to play the mafioso. Also, Sorvino, who died on Monday at the age of 83, was a jovial boy, and loved to play with the boys. Paulie was largely a brick. Much is made in the opening scenes of the film about how most of the criminals’ instructions were followed with a 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. In a 2015 panel At the Tribeca Film Festival commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Goodfellas,” Sorvino poked fun at people who complimented him on his “choices” in what became one of his signature roles. He scoffed at the idea of ​​”choice”, insisting: “I found the boy and the boy chose.”

“It was very difficult,” Sorvino told panel moderator Jon Stewart. “I’m a poet, I’m an opera singer, I’m a writer … none of this is a gangster.” But then, for Sorvino, came a moment. In his statement at that panel, it was while he was straightening his tie. On the second count, he was picking a bit of spinach between his teeth. In both versions, Sorvino looks into the mirror. And there was a decided sarcasm that met him.

“I saw this man.” And that was it.

Sorvino’s vision of Pauli was an incredibly sophisticated portrayal of a man who on the page is as simple and unsettling as sudden death. In “Wise Guy,” the nonfiction book that was the basis for “Goodfellas,” author Nick Pileggi wrote, “It was understood on the street that Paul Verrio” — the mobster’s surname was changed for the film — “ran a new York’s toughest and most violent gang. In the Brownsville-East New York area of ​​the city, “the body count was always high, and in the 1960s and 1970s the Wario thugs did much of the strong-arm work.” Peleggi explained, later adding, “There were always heads to be struck on picket lines, merchants to be pressed to pay their debts, freedmen to be rounded up along territorial lines. , potential witnesses will be killed, and pigeons will be buried.

Vario, then, was a middle manager of disaster. Sorvino plays her as a boy who keeps her cool and tried to To keep his underlings in line.

Most of “Goodfellas” (streaming on HBO Max) is dedicated to how the three underlings played by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro didn’t stay in line. Paulie can be a patient and loving “dad”. Sorvino uses his natural warmth early in the film when greeting the “well-earned” Jimmy (De Niro) in a backroom casino. Later, while overseeing an elaborate dinner at the prison, he has a special system for slicing garlic, and once his cellmate Henry (Liotta) enters with wine and scotch, he announces What, “Now we can eat.” Presiding over the celebration of Henry’s release from the joint, he is Uncle Pauly.

But it is while he is playing the brick that Sorvino kills him. In celebration, he brings Henry to his backyard. Henry was dealing drugs in prison with Pauly’s tacit approval. Now in fixed scowl mode, Paulie tells Henry to “stay away from the trash.” While Henry plays dumb, Paulie isn’t having it. “Don’t make a jerk out of me. Just don’t do it.” Without losing sight of any character’s outer-borough accent, Sorvino carves words like he’s breaking necks.

Henry and his henchmen 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 very sharp. no Knows he’s being cheated on, but what can he do about it? The one thing he can do is eliminate Pesci’s Tommy from the group, using brother Toddy Cicero (Frank De Leo) as his deadly proxy.

Paulie’s final words to Henry — “Now I’ve got to turn my back” — are as chilling as the film’s scariest scenes.

Sorvino’s decades-long career was restless. His first major role was as a rape victim in 1974’s ABC Movie of the Week. “It couldn’t happen to a nice guy.” In the 1974 version of “The Gambler” (available Rent or buy. on major platforms) he played his first mob-affiliated character, Hipps, but the character was no Paulie: he had a real personal attachment to the title character (James Cain), who was the hippest. More bad and indebted is the client.

For another taste of the more popular Sorvino, his turn as Curtis Mahoney, a federal agent turned investigative journalist in Mike Nichols’s much-maligned 1974 “The Day of the Dolphin” (available Come now), is worth a look. Far from being a competent mole, Mahoney is a prolific gossiper. Sorvino is also memorable as Adelson, the commanding officer of undercover cop Burns (Al Pacino) in William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (from 1980). Rent or buy. on major platforms). Assigning his underling to work in Manhattan’s gay sex-club underworld in search of a killer, Adelson inquires about Burns’ sexual history with the most pointed question, not a wink. do

Before and after “Goodfellas,” Sorvino was a regular presence in pictures directed by and starring Warren Beatty, most recently “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016). of Sorvino His post-“Goodfellas” filmography alternated between solid roles in indies such as “The Cooler” (2003) and James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (2014) and regular gigging actor Drake.

In 2018, the world learned how Sorvino can be off-screen. Responding to revelations of abuse and blackballing that his daughter, actor Mira Sorvino, endured at the hands of infamous mogul Harvey Weinstein, Sorvino. told TMZ She hoped Weinstein would serve jail time: “Because if not, he has to meet me.” Sorvino related in uncertain terms what would happen next.

The character of a proud father became angry, the justified anger suited the actor quite well. But one wishes he had not been obliged to revive him.

Glenn Kenny is a critic and author of “Mad Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas'”.