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You know the face. You’ve seen it countless times: on the big screen, on the small screen, in films like Goodfellas and Dick Tracy and TV shows such as Still Standing and Law & Order. The large-jowled, salt-of-the-earth mug belongs to Paul Sorvino, one of the finest and most familiar character actors of his generation. Over the past four decades, he’s starred in more than 100 films, enjoyed a fruitful career in TV, and also flourished on the stage, winning a Tony Award nomination for his performance in the edgy comedy That Championship Season.
With his 6-foot-4-inch frame and beefy body, Sorvino commands a vivid screen presence. Following his film debut in 1970’s Where’s Poppa?, scores of well-known movies have crowded his resume, including Oh, God!, Reds, Nixon (in which he played Henry Kissinger), Bulworth and the 2003 indie hit The Cooler. He’s often been cast as strong lawman types—detectives, sheriffs, government leaders. Or as just the opposite—the heavy, the gangster, the bad guy.
In fact, his role as mafia capo Paul Cicero in the Martin Scorcese film Goodfellas forever painted Sorvino in the mind’s eye of most Americans as the quintessential underworld kingpin. “There are many people who think I’m actually a gangster or a mafioso, largely because of Goodfellas,” he notes. “I suppose that’s the price you pay for being effective in a role.” In reality, Sorvino is a peace-loving fellow and a wide-ranging practitioner of the fine arts, describing himself as “a poet, a singer, a musician, a director, a composer, a writer, an actor and now a sculptor. I’m all about artistic things.” A true Renaissance man, he even has royalty in his roots. “Technically, I’m a knight,” Sir Paul explains. “My family goes back a thousand years in the Naples area. We’re a titled, noble people.”
Despite the civility and culture, this is not a guy you want to mess with if you’re up to no good. “I’m a warrior if you try to hurt my family,” he warns. “And anybody I see getting it in the neck out there, I’m right there to protect them. I’m a big, strong guy who knows what he’s doing. I’ve stopped a lot of things in the street, stopped a lot of people from getting hurt.”
Everything about Sorvino is big: his heart, his size, his singing voice, his appetites and his emotions. Who can forget the sight of him crying joyfully in the audience at the 1995 Academy Awards when his daughter Mira won an Oscar for her role in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite?
Those who know Sorvino say he’s different from the typical Tinseltown luminary. He’s not a flashy guy who needs the spotlight, but rather a down-to-earth family man. “He’s real,” says his close friend, pool magnate Charles Ursitti, who has known Sorvino for more than 20 years. “If you see him around kids, you know he’s just a homebody. And he’s a bona fide friend…I consider him my adoptive big brother.”
Having begun his career as a singer, the Brooklyn-born actor recently savored the chance to take the stage as the lead in the New York City Opera revival of Frank Loesser’s modern operatic comedy The Most Happy Fella, staged originally in 1956. Sorvino knew the revival would be a physically demanding production, but the 66-year-old entertainer is in prime shape. In fact, seeing him perform now, it’s hard to believe he once feared his stage days were over.
In his 20s Sorvino waged a severe battle with asthma. Struggling through rehearsals for the Broadway musical Bajour, he was fortunate to meet two fellow actors who changed his life by showing him a yoga breathing technique. “My asthma was cured in one day,” says Sorvino, who still uses the technique daily and has now been free of asthma symptoms for about 40 years.
Eager to get the word out about this underused therapy, he wrote the 1985 bestselling book How to Become a Former Asthmatic, published by William Morrow. In 1993, he founded the Sorvino Asthma Foundation, which provides public education about asthma and aims to create a network of asthma centers across the United States. Through the guidance of executive director Charles Ursitti and medical director Richard Firshein, MD, and with support from the New York City Department of Health Asthma Initiative, the foundation created a video demonstrating the daily breathing exercises that can help provide relief of asthma symptoms for many children and adults.
Just before the opening of the New York City Opera production, ABILITY Magazine’s managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, sat down with Sorvino to discuss his star turn in the musical, the mission of his asthma-fighting foundation, his wide-ranging volunteer work and his many artistic outlets.Gillian Friedman, MD: What capitivated you about getting involved with this revival of The Most Happy Fella?
Paul Sorvino: It’s a significant work, I think. Frank Loesser’s score is very operatic and really calls for the full operatic treatment—the large orchestra, 50 or 60 people, a lot of strings and a real professional chorus. This production has all that, which makes it musically something very new and very different. Loesser was kind of the American Puccini. If you listen to this score, you really hear his talent—it’s very melodic and beautiful writing. It’s also challenging, because he’s a modern writer, so there’s a lot of 12-tone stuff—hints of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.GF: How did the role come to you?
PS: The director, Philip William McKinley, was familiar with my performance in Fiddler on the Roof, which I had done last year in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he knew I could really do this kind of work—that I was not only an actor, but actually an opera singer with a full-fledged operatic voice. Mine was in some ways a hard role to cast because there are a lot of actors who want to sing but they’re really not singers, and a lot of singers who want to act but they’re really not actors.
I was excited because I’d wanted to do The Most Happy Fella all my life. I’d been listening to the record from the time I was a teenager. I’d seen the original production, spoken with the star, Robert Weede, and been fascinated by the musical all my life. So in a certain sense, this is a dream come true.GF: I understand there was a point early in your career when you wondered if your worsening health would prevent you from doing such a physically demanding production.
PS: When I was 25, I was in a show called Bajour, and I was going to leave the show because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t do the basic dance steps I had to do. Fortunately, two actors in the production—who were also yoga instructors—taught me some breathing exercises, and my asthma was cured that day. I was able to do the entire run.GF: You were lucky, then, to encounter those two actors. Was it just a matter of serendipity?
PS: Just luck. Without meeting them, I think my asthma would probably have progressed to the point where I would have been continually on steroid medications. It would have changed my life entirely, if not ended it early. I probably would not have survived to the age I am now—and surely my son would not have survived. He’s extraordinarily allergic and I believe would have died at age four. I know he would have, if I had not known how to help him.GF: So you’ve been able to help others with their asthma, the way your colleagues helped you.
PS: I’ve saved a couple of lives by teaching people the breathing techniques right on the spot—people who’d turned blue. I shook them a little and said, “Do this (demonstrates breathing) and blow out hard.” They did, and I’ve saved at least two people that way who were on their way to dying. The color came back into their faces.GF: Wow, I didn’t realize the techniques could work so rapidly in an emergency.
PS: Asthma is a constriction of the air passages—called the bronchi—that lead into the lungs. Around the bronchi is a muscle sheath, and when people have an asthma attack, that muscle sheath tightens up. Doing this forced breathing technique—pushing the air out hard against tightly pursed lips—breaks that muscle spasm.
The breathing exercises teach asthmatics to fill up the bottom of the lungs with a deep breath—not a shallow breath in the upper chest like all asthmatics take when they can’t get air, but a deep, low breath. Then they need to blow it out hard, as if they’re trying to blow out a candle that’s five feet away, and continue breathing that way for about five minutes. The bronchi open up and they can breathe. They should repeat that process three or four times a day.GF: You’ve talked very openly about your asthma—you even wrote a bestselling book about your experiences. That’s unusual for the entertainment industry, where many people don’t want to talk about their health problems or vulnerabilities.
PS: You’re right—mostly, they don’t. Most celebrities don’t want to be known as anything but perfectly firm—certainly not infirm. But after age 30 everyone starts developing some sort of health problem, after 40 more so, and after age 50 or 60 for sure. I don’t know if it’s arrogance on my part or what, but I just want to do my work and not worry about what people think.
I do wish other celebrities would be more forthcoming. It helps people, especially when there’s information that can make a real difference. I wish I could reach more people. Sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night knowing I could have given them something that might have saved their lives.GF: You took a risk talking about your asthma publicly. Do you think letting the world know that you had a serious health condition cost you in any way?
PS: Well, a lot of people think I still have asthma, which is interesting because I haven’t had it for such a long time. I had one attack when I went into a pollen-ridden room, but it was over very quickly. I am essentially asthma-free, and I’m very athletic; I’ve won tournaments in tennis.
I don’t know if talking about my asthma has hurt my career, and I really don’t care if it has. I care only about doing the work I’m doing, and if people don’t think I should work because they think I’m asthmatic, then that’s really their problem.GF: What kind of work are you doing through the foundation you started, the Sorvino Asthma Foundation? .…Continued in ABILITY Magazine
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