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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

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And, Assante adds, it was not an easy one. "Acting, as much as I love it, came at a very high price. I was not a good actor. I was a very slow, very theatrical, very stage-y actor's actor. I wanted to be the next Laurence Olivier. I wanted to emulate actors like Olivier, [Peter] O'Toole and [Richard] Burton while a lot of my generation wanted to be the next [Marlon] Brando. I was into the theater very heavily but when I started a career in the film world, it was a completely different world for me. It did not come easily. Not at all."

When Assante was eight, the Italian-Irish family of five (he has both an older and a younger sister) moved from Manhattan to the countryside of Cornwall, two hours or so outside of the city. Assante's mother, Kathryn, a teacher and accomplished poet, had been diagnosed with polio the day after Armand was born, and Assante's father, Armand Sr., decided that the best thing for both his family and his career as a fine arts painter was to move to the country.

If a young Assante suffered some initial cultural shock, he insists that what he learned by living a little closer to the land benefited him in the decades to come.

"Back then, Cornwall," Assante explains, laughing, "wasn't even on the map! My father was a real artist but also a bit of a he-man. He left the city, renovated a home on a mountain, [and] we learned. I was now responsible for going and getting milk and eggs at 6 o'clock in the morning. We learned to be tough enough to endure whatever it was; if you have to walk through four or five feet of snow to get the milk and eggs and bring it back home, OK, you do it. Self-reliance."

That determination and work ethic came in handy when, after graduating from high school and while still playing the occasional band date, Assante applied himself to studying drama, first at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then with the well-known drama teacher Mira Rostova.

His parents, both highly creative artists, understood the lure of music for their son, but a career in acting? Not so much. While he had the support that comes from being part of a very tight, very close-knit family, Assante says, his parents weren't—and, for the most part, still aren't—enamored with his career choice.

When asked if his parents are proud of his career in film, Assante pauses for a long moment before answering. "Proud of me? I don't know. They'd tell you I'm a hard worker. That would be the long and short of it. They're not at all infatuated with film. Not at all.

"They're amazing people, very bright people, [and] I was very blessed," Assante continues. "Blessed by default. My parents, well, I don't think they ever took the film world seriously. I think they took the art world seriously, the literary world seriously, the music world seriously, but films have never struck a chord with them. So in a sense, I was kind of an outsider. I still am in my family in that regard and I think they look at it with caution. My parents have probably only seen maybe half a dozen of my films."

If the critics were to have chosen those half dozen films for them, surely The Mambo Kings would have been included. Although there had been plenty of television roles and smaller films made in the actor's 18-year career prior to The Mambo Kings—a regular role in the TV drama "The Doctors" and big-screen and television features as diverse as The Lords of Flatbush, Jack the Ripper, Paradise Alley, Private Benjamin and The Marrying Man—The Mambo Kings was, perhaps, one of the first big-screen films that blatantly played up Assante's looks and a certain bad-boy sexuality.

The actor's portrayal of the Cuban playboy was a big hit with female ticket buyers and that, plus Assante's Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the 1988 television film Jack the Ripper and another Golden Globe nomination for the 1990 big-screen feature Q&A, wasn't lost on casting directors and film producers. Assante worked steadily—far more steadily than most of his peers—through the rest of the '90s.

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