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Hollywood's Tough Guy

Armand Assante has made a Hollywood career out of playing cigar-smoking characters with a hard edge.
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

Sometimes," claimed famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, "a cigar is just a cigar." Armand Assante, the 58-year-old gravel-voiced actor best known for playing street-tough wiseguys, steely military officers and gritty, seen-everything police detectives, respectfully disagrees.

For Assante, most recently seen on the big screen in director Ridley Scott's blockbuster drama American Gangster, a cigar is an enforced pause, a break in the conversation and, on occasion, is used as an alternative to pointing a finger.

At the moment, the Emmy Award—winning actor is smoking a C.A.O. and, when a guest notes that he uses the cigar almost as a prop, a stalling mechanism when he's asked a question, he grins, points the cigar at his visitor and offers up a "so, you got that, did you?" raise of the eyebrows.

"I'll use a cigar to pause before I jump to a conclusion," admits Assante. "I smoke a cigar when I want more stillness in my mind, and upon exhaling the sweetness of a cigar I generally am editing my own thoughts about something I might be working on or about the person I am listening to.

"I love cigars. In the process of a cigar, I observe my thoughts. A cigar for me is about solitude, both alone and in company, and I take it seriously."

For a man who's smoked cigars for more than 30 years, there have been memorable moments—both in his personal life and in the roles that he's played on-screen—that stand out but, says Assante, there's one that's a genuine favorite.

"The greatest cigar experience I ever had was given to me by a restaurateur in Miami in 1995. The owner gave me a pre-Castro Romeo & Julieta, circa 1953, which he had in his vaulted humidor. The dessert sensation and the delicateness of that smoke I have never forgotten."

Assante nods and smiles when it's pointed out that more than a dozen, maybe two dozen, of his movies—On the Beach, Hoffa, Passion and Paradise, Gotti, The Mambo Kings, Two for the Money, American Gangster and California Dreamin' to name just a few—feature his character smoking a cigar.

Whether it's in the script or not, acknowledges Assante, a cigar often finds its way into his character's hands and, should it not, there will likely be one in the actor's hands offscreen.

"When I'm working I will smoke sometimes two or three a day because it clears my mind out. I slow down when I smoke a cigar; my thoughts get slower and I start to examine things outside myself. It's an illusion, obviously, but maybe because a cigar gives you a natural pause, you start to examine whatever it is you're trying to articulate and maybe somehow, for a moment, have the illusion," Assante says with a grin, "that you're being more articulate than you are. It's not bad, the illusion of being articulate!"

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