The Singing Ex-Detective

updated 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT PAUL SORVINO IS making a mistake. For the past year and a half, the highly respected character actor, who has brought his soft-spoken gravitas to more than 70 movie and TV roles (GoodFellas, The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy), has been playing Det. Sgt. Phil Cerreta on Law & Order, NBC's gritty New York City—based cop drama. But now, Sorvino wants off the show. So in a two-parter that begins airing Nov. 18, Cerreta will be shot and—whether he survives or not—wind up permanently off-camera; henceforth partner Mike Logan (actor Christopher Noth) will get a new partner, running mate by Jerry Orbach.

Fans have already weighed in with Sorvino. "I'm being chastised on the street regularly," says the Brooklyn-born actor, 53, munching on an apple in his six-room penthouse apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I mean, to leave a hit series—and a very large paycheck...?"

But he has an answer. He bursts into song, "The Impossible Dream," in a rich theatrical tenor that seems to have the building trembling on pitch. "To follow that star...No matter how hopeless, no matter how far!"

That star, in this case, is opera, and Sorvino, after a lifetime of dreaming, hopes finally to catch up with it. In December he will begin recording his first album, a collection of Italian love songs. In preparation, he studies with voice coach Ugo de Caro five days a week, two hours a day, as he has for nine years. "If he keeps working, he has great potential," says De Caro. "Wouldn't you like to see him as Samson at the Met? That's what we're aiming for."

Sorvino has explored opera before, but this is the first time he has given up his day job to do it. He studied singing during his teens in New York City, but his asthma got in the way—until, in his 20s, he learned to cure the condition with yoga breathing exercises. (He plans to open an asthma foundation.) He made his classical recital debut in 1981 in New York City, singing Italian arias. He certainly looks the part. "I have the typical tenor's build," says Sorvino, a commanding 6'3" and 240 lbs. "The barrel chest, the broad face, very big upper body and very long, slender legs." As for the voice: "The color is baritonal. The volume is considerably louder than most tenors."

But that deep, powerful instrument was hampered by Sorvino's work on Law & Order, with its grueling, on-location shooting, often on chilly streets in the middle of the night. "Pavarotti doesn't go out in the cold without a scarf over his mouth," says Sorvino, invoking an idol. Sorvino won't positively swear off doing another TV show, and he'll still be doing movies (his next project will be producing The Brush Off, starring his elder daughter, Mira), but for now he is determined to fulfill what he once described as "a biological necessity and a kind of Neapolitan imperative."

Paul is second-generation Italian-American, the youngest of three sons born to Ford Sorvino, foreman of a Manhattan robe factory, and his spouse, Marietta, a housewife. He grew up surrounded by music, especially Italian opera. Marietta, who played and taught piano, and who died at 83 in 1991, never ceased marveling at her son, says Sorvino's wife, Vanessa, 33. "She would say, 'Paul used to sing and dance and entertain everybody since he was 3."

But there was disharmony between his parents, and though they remained married for 62 years, they were constantly breaking up. "I felt like a Ping-Pong ball," Sorvino says. When he was 10, his mother took the children to California, where Paul promptly had his first asthma attack. When Paul was 12, Ford brought the boys back to New York City. Even now, Sorvino's eyes well up with tears thinking of that separation from his mother, which ended when he was 17.

Moving about with one and then the other parent. Sorvino attended 13 different schools before graduating from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn in 1956. "That need to adapt quickly—not to be the new kid on the block—took all my acting skills."

But that didn't instantly translate into an acting career. After a few years of odd jobs, he won a scholarship, at age 23, to New York City's American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where he met his first wife, fellow student Lorraine Davis. A string of not terribly significant stage parts followed. His breakthrough: the 1972 Pulitzer-prizewinning drama, That Championship Season, in which he played a strip miner and earned himself a Tony nomination.

His marriage to Lorraine, though, ended in divorce in 1988. "We were two people who should never have been married," says Sorvino. Lorraine now lives in New Jersey with their son, Michael, 14. Their daughters, Mira, 25, and Amanda, 22 (also an actress), live in New York City.

Sorvino met Vanessa, a real estate associate, three years ago while dining out with a friend, actor Danny Aiello. He tried to impress her, she recalls, by listing some of his 30-odd movie credits. "He said, 'Have you ever seen this? Or this?' and I said, 'No, no, no,' all the way down the line," says Vanessa, laughing.

Paul sighs. "I did everything but juggle to get her attention," he admits. And, yes, he sang—snatches of La Bohème. They married in March 1991, and now, he says, "We're very much a together couple. We don't get sick of each other." They cook, mostly Italian, and want to take ballroom dance lessons. Once a week, Sorvino shoots pool with his brother Bill, 57, who manages a real-estate firm. (His eldest brother, Ronald, 59, is a psychiatrist.) And, of course, he stays at home and sings his heart out.

This is not always good for the neighbors. Late one night, says Sorvino, "I was singing with the windows open, and some guy yells, 'Turn it down!' " Embarrassed, he did. "I was pushing it," he says. Even if Sorvino has an opera star's voice, he doesn't act the prima donna.


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