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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!"

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 had...no 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."

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.

Assante racked up dozens more credits, including his first film with Ridley Scott, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, followed by Hoffa opposite Jack Nicholson, Trial by Jury, Judge Dredd and Striptease. Some of the movies were critically applauded, but many were panned.

If some were dramatic roles, some comedic and some nothing short of satire—intentional or not—what they all had in common were key traits that Assante brought to almost every character: a handsome face combined with a rough, whiskey-like voice and a demeanor that spoke of power, discipline and absolute confidence. It's a male persona that women want to be with and men simply want to be: assertive, rugged and supremely confident. Or, what's sometimes described as a man's man.

Assante grimaces at the term and looks slightly uncomfortable. "I don't know that I feel like a 'man's man.' I grew up in a big family and I would say this: most of the men in our family were very accountable for what they did in their lives. They all had good positions, they were all serious about what they did [and] took their work seriously. I was surrounded by wonderful male role models as a kid. Wonderful."

Assante pauses for a moment, relights his cigar and then continues. "I don't know that I know what the word 'macho' means or what macho values are. I'm not sure that I would say I'm a macho man, but I would say that I grew up with and was taught self-respect from a very early age. I have enough self-respect that I can deal with failure, take it on the chin and move on."

And the aura of absolute confidence? "I would say that when I was younger I was more arrogant [laughs] versus confident. I don't think anything is ever accomplished without a certain sense of arrogance. When I say that I was surrounded by great male role models, I was surrounded by men that went about their business and knew what they had. They were taskmasters. My father was a wonderful taskmaster; he taught me how to work physically as well as mentally. I learned early on that work was going to be a big part of my life [and] I've been working hard since I was 14. I think if you learn how to work, you can learn how to love and how to find something to do that you love. It's only then," says Assante, "that you realize that confidence is developed through self-esteem."

Perhaps it is that air of confidence that has made Assante so adept at playing—and so frequently cast in—the stalwart roles of cop, spy, military officer or gangster. Especially gangster.

Part of it is about appearance and bearing; at 5 feet, 11 inches, Assante holds himself almost military-erect—shoulders out, spine straight—and his stride when he walks is long and assured. He's also built like a fighter—a testament perhaps to the home gym that occupies a room in his home and to the very real, physical work that he does around his 225-acre farm in upstate New York—but it is also about the square jaw, the "you wanna piece o' dis?" stare and, currently, a slightly messy, grown-out version of a flattop haircut.

But even when his look is slightly softer—as it was in the second half of Gotti, a role that earned Assante an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special and for which he gained 50 pounds during the shoot in order to "span" the real John Gotti's lifetime—there's just something about the way that the actor holds himself, narrows his eyes and glares into a camera that's made the guy the one whom directors turn to when they need a mob boss.

Take his recent, well-received role as Dominic Cattano, the quietly powerful mob boss in American Gangster. Although it was, essentially, a secondary—even tertiary—role, critics and audiences alike had trouble taking their eyes off of the screen anytime Assante had a few lines.

If there doesn't seem to be any limit to an audience's love of movies or television shows that depict wiseguys and gangsters, Assante's in luck. Few actors portray them as effectively as he does. Part of it, Assante theorizes, has to do with his having done his homework; the rest of it, he believes, has to do with a cultural yearning for rules. Or, in this case, for a code.

"The Godfather was released just after the Vietnam War when America had blown apart every single value known to man. I mean, we blew it out of the park. There was drugs, sex, whatever...we trashed it! Dragged it into the street and burned it. I think when The Godfather came along, there was a subliminal structure [and storyline] to The Godfather that enforces family value within the story and I think it had an unconscious effect on American audiences. They loved the idea of 'code' and I think the American psyche got caught up in The Godfather as a yearning for rules, as something that was left intact. I think that's [part of] America's fascination with gangsters and the Soprano-esque way of living.

"Of the mobsters that I've interviewed over the years, " Assante continues, "I would say the majority of the real mobsters that I've met in my life were borderline schizophrenic or bipolar. Very frightening people. And," Assante pauses for a moment, puffs on his cigar and then grins, "they were some of the funniest people I've met in my life in terms of comedic sensibility. They will literally set the house on a roar. Some people have commented that I was either self-parodying a mobster or being outlandish, [but] in truth I have met those characters [and] they are far, far, far more outlandish. They are outrageous. I have seen them pull stunts in public that will literally stop a restaurant.

"That was something I desperately wanted to inject into the [Dominic Cattano] character because I don't see it too often when I watch mob movies. I see all this hard-core threat, threat, threat, threat when in fact some of them are the funniest 'batties'—and when I use the term 'bat shit' I mean it in the most complete embodiment of whatever bat shit means!—and in fact I wanted to inject it into that character. Now, those characters," Assante adds, "as fun as they can be, are also as deadly as they can be. As deadly as cold ice, unapologetically, and it's amazing to be in the presence of that."

To emphasize his point, Assante tells the story of how he accompanied a scientific research team to Africa whose mission it was to tranquilize lions in the wild, draw their blood and test for AIDS. The problem arose, Assante says, when an adult male lion, already hit with two tranqs, refused to yield position as king of his jungle. Not to sleep, not to humans.

"I remember," says Assante, shaking his head, "being in the Jeep, facing this lion for 30 minutes who wouldn't go out even with a second dart. That lion stared at me and literally assessed whether he was going to bite my torso off for 30 minutes," he says, laughing.

It was, says Assante, a moment of revelation. "I truly understood it then; a lion does not apologize for being a lion."

As an actor, Assante has kept what can only be called an insane film schedule for the last two years; besides the international release of American Gangster, he's seen two independent films, When Nietzsche Wept and California Dreamin' (both of which were filmed in Eastern Europe), come out in limited release or at film festivals. He's also made guest appearances in the television drama "October Road" and had roles in the movies Order of Redemption, The Man Who Came Back, Chicago Overcoat and La Linea, all of which are wrapping production or in post-production with 2008 release dates.

In addition, Assante has a project that is strictly his own. In the 1990s, the actor was working with a human rights group when he met Jerry White, the founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Landmine Survivors Network. White, the victim of a land mine a decade earlier, found an ardent student on the issues of land mines—and ultimately an impassioned crusader—in Assante.

"If you can imagine, 400 million land mines have been placed on earth since World War II," says Assante. "The chief victims today are children, women, soldiers and de-miners, in that order. I was born in 1949, when polio claimed 13 million victims, and my mother was [one of] its victims. I have many vivid childhood memories of rehab centers all over Manhattan and so on some visceral level, anything that blindly steals limbs hits me in a place that I have a reflex to.

"Isn't it ironic that about 70 percent of Marine Corps casualties in Vietnam were due to land mines, some of which they had laid themselves? The thought of what young men in Iraq and at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] are enduring does not," Assante says, quietly, "sit well with me."

Even as Assante was slowly learning and gathering more information about land mines, he was filming back-to-back-to-back projects in Eastern Europe, one of the many regions in the world devastated, he points out, by war and the land mines left behind. In his spare time, in between films, he began accompanying de-mining teams as they swept fields for buried mines, some scattered many decades ago, some quite recently. It doesn't really matter when they were laid, Assante points out, since they can stay active for 30 or more years.

In 1999, he decided to put his growing awareness and his skill as a storyteller to work and he began to film a documentary entitled Blind Dragon.

The somewhat unusual title, Assante explains, has significant meaning. " 'Blind Dragon' is a metaphor. A land mine is a weapon that does not distinguish a child from a soldier who is on a border where he should not be, hence it is 'blind.' A dragon lives forever in the earth and a dragon's teeth cuts its victim in half. There have been many metaphors used to describe weapons. 'Dragon' is a popular one."

Assante filmed extensively in Croatia and, with Afghanistan, Angola, Eritrea, Cambodia and Vietnam still on the itinerary, headed to Angola for the next segment. Based on the message he was telling, Assante was hoping for cooperation and, to some extent, open arms from the government. What he got, he says, were open palms and, following multiple demands for bribes, Assante scrapped the rest of the trip. It's his intention to return to filming, with some additional funding, this year.

In the interim, Assante takes advantage of what little downtime he has to rejuvenate on his farm, a practice he calls "seeking solace."

Assante purchased the farm in 1983, renovating and adding on to the turn-of-the-century farmhouse over a number of years. It is now home to not just Assante but to a stable full of thoroughbred horses and nine purebred German shepherds.

It is, according to Assante, the primary gathering place for his very large and very extended family—including his two daughters, Anya, 24, and Alesandra, 19, that he had with his former wife, Karen—and he often sees as many as 40 family members gathered into the farmhouse's kitchen during holidays and special events.

"I knew when I came here [in 1983], to this farm, I said to myself, 'This place can teach me something,' and it's true. It has. There's a stillness here, a peace, for which I'm very grateful. Immensely grateful and blessed," muses Assante. "I'm in my zone here. It's a wonderful place to meditate, to regroup and to find yourself, your inner self and your core.

"I've found extraordinary peace here, solace, on this farm. It's been an extraordinary gift in many, many ways, but the biggest gift for me, besides raising my daughters here, is the incredible quiet and sense of serenity that comes from living here, working on the farm, riding in the woods. I have a very profound connection with nature [and] I stay in the woods a lot. I cut all my own wood, I clear all my own fields, clear the woods of whatever's dead. It's my mental, physical, spiritual gymnasium to be in the woods."

If this doesn't sound like the same man who's repeatedly brought crime bosses to life on the big screen, the answer why is simple, says the actor: those are simply movie roles, nothing more. His life, Assante says, is far, far more interesting.

"I live an incredible life. Incredible. I've lived the life of 10 men. I've been blessed with great health, great stamina, and I live my life very intensely. That is, philosophically, just who I am," says Assante, studying the end of his cigar. "I think that when you live at a certain level of intensity, you have to counterbalance.

"I think the intensity of working as an actor has a price. No matter what they tell you, there's a very intense price to pay. My life with my kids, my home life, my family life...I would have had a bigger career if I'd put my career first, but I put my life first and by that I mean that I really, really enjoy my life.

"I work as much as I do so as to live life on my own terms. I want the freedom to go anywhere on the planet at any given moment with my family or my loved ones or just completely alone. I consider that freedom my principal obligation to the work I am in as well as to myself.

"I live on the edge." Assante pauses for a moment and then grins. "And I love the edge."

Photos by Alexx Henry

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