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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

(continued from page 1)

Depending on which coast he's on, Assante has a couple of cigar stores he frequents, but admits that, not unlike gasoline, the recent price increases on some cigar labels have him evaluating which cigars he's willing to invest in. "In New York I generally will buy my cigars from De La Concha, and if I am not in Manhattan I'll go to Hudson Valley Cigars in New Windsor. In Encino, I will go to Fat Stogies. The selection is affordable and intelligent. I don't like walking out of a cigar store these days and feel like I've been one does.

"The value of the dollar right now is not in the cigar [smoker's] favor," Assante continues, "so I am more inclined these days to choose terrific cigars that make dollar sense. There are superb, reasonable [pricewise] cigars coming out of Nicaragua, for instance. A large-gauge C.A.O. in any of their nation labels or a La Gloria Cubana are a good deal in today's—and any—market.

"If I have no pangs of what I am depriving the table of," Assante says, grinning again, "I love Fuente's Opus[X] selection, Hoyo de Monterey's Epicure No. 2., Avos and the Cohiba Robusto, but who doesn't?"

Among the many movies that have offered Assante the opportunity to light up on-screen, his role in the Latin music—infused drama, The Mambo Kings, afforded him one of the first occasions to do so—or at least one of the biggest. Released in 1992 and widely considered by critics to have been the breakout film for both Assante and costar Antonio Banderas, the film featured the two actors as Cuban émigrés, both musicians, who head to New York prepared to take the music world and club scene by storm.

Cigars figured into many of the scenes in The Mambo Kings as did music by some of the leading names in the world of Latin music, including Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. The soundtrack to the movie did almost as well as the movie itself and one of the original songs from the film, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," sung at various times throughout the film by both Banderas and Assante, went on to win Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.

If the fact that Assante could sing—and sing well—stunned many moviegoers, they would have been even more surprised to hear that in one of the pivotal scenes in the movie, one in which Assante's character, Cesar Castillo, jumps up on stage and plays an extended riff on the drums alongside Tito Puente, it was Assante himself playing.

It turns out that as a teenager growing up in Cornwall, New York, Assante sang and played drums in a band and his career goals involved music, not movies.

Assante still loves to play the drums—there's a complete drum kit in the corner of the actor's office—and as he tells the story of how Puente himself asked Assante to play with him in a club gig after The Mambo Kings, strictly as a musician, it's obvious that that was a highlight of his career as both musician and thespian.

But Assante also admits, laughing and a bit sheepish, that even way back as a teenager and before any thought of pursuing a career as an actor, playing the drums was really all about the drama.

"I was very gifted as a young musician, I'm still a talented musician [and] I was a singer and drummer for many years. I found that when I did my music I was performing, I was a performance-driven singer. Whenever I was singing or drumming it was about performance, it was about 'banging out the rafters' [laughs] and making everybody know that I was the center of the universe at that moment. When I was young and doing that stuff, that's how I felt about the world. Acting I felt embodied that kind of adrenaline thing for me, but it was much more complex. A much more complex journey."

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