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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 3)

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.

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