Paul Sorvino is best known for playing tough-guy mob boss Paulie Cicero in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and detective Phil Cerreta on TV’s Law & Order. But a few of the former Tenafly resident’s favorite roles are below the radar, such as the one he’s played for more than four decades as dad to actress Mira Sorvino and her siblings. Sorvino, 72, is also a businessman, a mobilizer of others in support of the causes closest to him and an opinionated cook. He is also a passionate tenor—as up to 1,600 people per night will find out October 27 and November 4, when Sorvino performs solo at the historic Loews Jersey Theater in Jersey City (ticket information: brownpapertickets.com). The shows, organized and produced by his nephew Bill Sorvino, of Chatham, may become the springboard for a national tour. He talked with New Jersey Monthly from Los Angeles, where he lives.
You had 18 years of singing lessons before you started acting school. Did you always want to be a singer?
Yes. And I’ve had way more training than that. Most all singers work with teachers their whole careers—it’s sort of like how a tennis pro goes to tournaments with his coach. That’s the nature of singing.
You’re better known as an actor than a singer. Was that intentional?
I sang a bit here and there through the years, but I had mortgages and things like that. Acting brought me money.
So you’ve always wanted to pursue it, and now’s the time?
Yes. I also had asthma for years and I couldn’t sing; it made it really difficult. I still did it in musicals and things, but I didn’t find a technique until I was in my 40s that enabled me to use all of my voice.
For your Jersey City audience, you will be singing operatic arias, Neapolitan love songs and American-songbook standards. Is that your favorite kind of music?
I have such eclectic taste, though. I’ll be doing “Road to Mandalay,” “Once Upon a Time” from The Fantasticks, “O Sole Mio” and, you know, famous Italian standards, a couple of arias.
You started your own Italian food line a few years ago. How did that come about?
Right now it’s in a transitional phase—we’re restructuring. But some of the sauces are already out there. Down the road we’ll have low-carb pasta and other things. It started because I’ve always been a businessman, and I’ve been cooking since I was 12. It occurred to me that since it’s something that’s in me and that I know how to do, I should do it.
How do you feel about the tough characters you’ve played?
The toughness is just for the films. I have a poetic side [here he breaks into the song version of Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay”]. Toughness has nothing to do with me. The Sorvino family itself is a noble family in Italy. I am a noble knight.
That nobility has extended to some noble deeds: until a few years ago, you ran a horse-rescue operation with your daughter Amanda, a playwright, in Pennsylvania. And you also founded the Paul Sorvino Asthma Foundation in the 1990s.
The Asthma Foundation is almost quiescent now, but I’m looking to get it re-funded. A huge amount of the population has asthma—it’s the number 1 reason children visit emergency rooms. I have a dream to have asthma centers all over the country. There are exercises that can help people become former asthmatics. I learned them and they helped me.
You also founded a theater company in Teaneck, the American Stage Company, which launched some successful off-Broadway shows. That was while you were living in Tenafly. How did you like being a New Jersey resident? We came to New Jersey for my career. I needed to be in New York, but I thought it would be better to raise my children in a suburban setting.
You remain close with your kids: daughters Mira and Amanda and son, Michael. When Mira won an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite in 1995, you were shown in the audience, memorably, in tears.
People I work with sometimes think their career trumps everything, but the way I see it, my children didn’t ask to be born. They deserve the lion’s share of my love. And they’ve had it and they continue to have it.
Do stereotypes of Italian-Americans like the ones promoted by the reality show Jersey Shore bother you?
They really do. Although last night I had occasion to watch something I had never seen before, and that was Cake Boss. It was a little goombah-ish, but it was also good-natured fun. The whole point of it was his creativity and his engaging personality. But Jersey Shore and all that, that’s bothersome. That has nothing to do with Italian-Americans. So many Italian-Americans are at the forefront of our culture, but I guess that’s not as interesting as people who want to live life on a lesser level. I still have a lot of fondness for New Jersey. If there was a New Jersey song, I’d sing it.
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