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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 4)

"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."

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