Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
These have been hard times for bad guys. Not “bad” bad guys. There are still plenty of those around in real life. I mean the “good” bad guys: movie actors who were so gifted at being hard, tough and occasionally junkyard-dog mean that they’re not always as easy to hate. It may say something about the brutality of Summer 2022 that it has taken away so many gifted actors known for brute-force roles.
Just this week, for instance, we lost both David Warner, at 80, and Paul Sorvino, at 83. However different their backgrounds (Warner was a Manchester, England native while Sorvino was born and bred in the Beautiful Borough of Brooklyn, New York), both men had long, distinguished and valued careers as character actors. Both frequently played imposing-to-intimidating men who even in relative repose conveyed implied threats.
On balance, Warner, whose breakthrough came in the title role of “Morgan!” (1966) as a lovesick London artist, had more credits than Sorvino as an out-and-out villain, whether it was as Jack the Ripper eluding H.G. Wells through future decades in “Time After Time” (1979), the slimy tech executive mutating into an even slimier digital program in “TRON” (1982), a Klingon high official in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) and the baleful, glowering hatchet man to Kate Winslet’s dodgy, leering fiancé in “Titanic” (1997). In addition to these, there were dozens of credits on television and as cartoon voices where he was so reliably sinister that he had his own coterie of fans who appreciated his durability, professionalism and the strains of ruined dignity he managed to evoke in even the most malign of his villains.
Sorvino was even more beloved, though what many have called his signature film role, mob boss Paulie Cicero in “GoodFellas” (1990), wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Sorvino’s Paulie loomed over finks, cops and colleagues alike with a frostiness thick enough to keep steaks in the next room from spoiling. In a salon teeming with motor-mouthed wise guys, Paulie was the one who just kept staring silently at the others.
Scary – and yet at one point in “GoodFellas,” you see an unexpected side of Paulie. It’s when, with intense concentration and an attention to detail, he uses a razor blade to slice off the thinnest possible layer off a garlic clove. Upon first seeing this in a theater, one images a thought bubble illuminating the darkness over everyone’s head saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” This interlude somehow seemed close to the real-life Sorvino, whose eclectic activities off-screen included figurative sculpture.
This summer of transition among wise guys of the big and small screen all but started with the May 26 death of Sorvino’s “GoodFellas” co-star Ray Liotta at 67. Since then, we’ve also had to bid farewell to Tony Sirico, who played Peter Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualteri on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Sirico, who died July 8 at 79, played Paulie Walnuts, one of the more volatile of Jersey capo Tony Soprano’s lieutenants who maintained a ferocious sense of justice and duty to his calling. Nothing icy or aloof about Sirico’s Paulie in comparison to Sorvino’s. If anything linked them both, it was a rough-hewn charm that almost – one stresses “almost” – made them lovable.
Last (so far), but certainly not least was the passage of James Caan, whose name became a household word for playing the hot-tempered Sonny, eldest of the three star-crossed sons of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in 1972’s “The Godfather.” Caan, who died July 6 at 82, had before “Godfather” been a promising young actor who’d distinguished himself in films by such directors as Howard Hawks and Robert Altman and as the doomed Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the 1971 TV movie, “Brian’s Song.”
When Caan died, one couldn’t find a single obituary that didn’t place Sonny Corleone front-and-center among the actor’s body of work. I guess that’s as it should have been, given its impact on Caan’s career. But I also think it’s kind of an irony since, in many ways, Sonny was among the least interesting or multi-dimensional of Caan’s roles. Given how things turned out over time for Sonny’s brothers Michael (Al Pacino) and Fredo (John Cazale), he wasn’t even the most interesting Corleone.
In fact, among the criminals Caan played, the cooler, tougher and, thus, most intriguing was in Michael Mann’s 1981 heist thriller, “Thief,” in which Caan’s Frank was a veteran safecracker and ex-convict who conveyed both a serene confidence in his abilities and a touchy guardedness that sheathed his personality like a force field. I don’t remember his Frank saying, “Don’t mess with me, or else,” at any time in the movie because he didn’t have to.
Now that is what it really means to be a “bad” man – in the best sense.