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Sorvino gets to replay 'Championship Season'

Paul Sorvino saw a dream come true this year.

He finally had the opportunity to play the coach in the latest film version of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "That Championship Season," which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. MDT on cable's Showtime.It not as if he was venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Sorvino played Phil Romano in the original 1972 Broadway production and reprised the role in the 1982 big screen adaptation.

"I always wanted to play the coach from the first day I read the play," Sorvino said. "But I knew I'd have to wait until I was old enough."

The versatile Sorvino, who turned 60 in April, pulled double duty this time around. He also directed. Although it marked the first time he had directed a film, Sorvino had plenty of experience with that task in the theater.

"I've directed many plays and, in addtion to having done over 70 films as an actor, I know my way around the nuts and bolts of the director's trade," Sorvino said. "I will say that it is physically demanding to do both."

"Season" focuses on four members of a basketball team who return home to be with their coach for a 20th anniversary celebration of the team's state high school championship. Among them are Tom Daly (Gary Sinise), now an alcoholic writer; Phil Romano (Vincent D'Onofrio), a wealthy businessman; George Sitkowski (Tony Shalhoub), the town's mayor running for re-election; and Tom's brother, James (Terry Kinney), a junior high school principal.

After a ceremony at the school, the four retire to the coach's home to have a few drinks and reminisce about old times. As the evening wears on and the drinks pile up, the nostalgic gathering turns into anything but a friendly reunion.

Given the passion of the material, many of the confrontational scenes could be draining for the actors.

"You have to gear yourself up to do something like this," Sorvino said. "It's like you're in a submarine together with a lot of laughs and a lot of tears. I was very happy with the reaction of the people who saw a screening of the film. I love this material."

Sorvino called "That Championship Season" one of the two greatest American plays, the other being "Death of a Salesman."

The play touches on one of Sorvino's favorite subjects -- "the forever elusive and fascinating human heart".

"I think I'm only fitted for directing movies like this," Sorvino said. "It's got to be character-driven. I doubt that I could direct an action movie.

"And that's not putting down action movies. I enjoy going to the theater, sitting there with my bag of popcorn and being entertained just like everybody else."

Sorvino said he spent a lot of time at the movies while growing up in his native Brooklyn. He cited director Elia Kazan ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "East of Eden") as a man who changed how movies look at life.

"I think (Martin) Scorsese has carried on that tradition."

The actor who made the biggest impression on Sorvino? Marlon Brando. "We all walked around the neighborhood trying to be like Brando," Sorvino said with a laugh. "I think all of us knew his 'I could've been a contender' speech (from 'On the Waterfront'). "

Sorvino's appreciation of movies, though, was wide-ranging.

"I liked the old Westerns. They were our 'Star Wars' and the horror movies like 'Frankenstein' and 'Dracula'."

For those who knew him then, it probably was no surprise that Sorvino gravitated toward the theater and eventually ended up in the movies. Since making his first screen appearance in 1970's "Where's Poppa?," Sorvino has been one of the busiest actors in the business, moving back and forth with ease between movies and television.

His many films have included "A Touch of Class," "The Rocketeer," "Goodfellas" and "The Firm." (1990). His many television appearances have included the CBS miniseries "Chiefs"; subbing for Raymond Burr in a Perry Mason mystery; playing the title role in HBO's "Joe Torre;" and portraying Det. Phil Cerreta for a season on NBC's "Law & Order."

Acting and directing aren't Sorvino's only loves. Possessing a fine voice, he also is an opera fan and performer.

He says his interests have a lot to do with his background: "I'm an emotional Italian-American."

Much of the country, and, indeed, the world saw that emotion firsthand during the 1996 Academy Awards when daughter Mira won for her performance in "Mighty Aphrodite." Sorvino wept openly with joy.

"At first, I was afraid I had embarrassed myself," Sorvino said. "But since then I've had so many people tell me how moved they were that night. I guess parents everywhere could relate to what happened."