Assante: Versatile, but <i> Not</i> French

Armand Assante was still reeling from his first “Tonight Show” appearance when we talked with him last week.

“I was a wreck. I’m just not an anecdotal type of guy,” says Assante, who plans to write host Jay Leno a thank-you letter “for trying so hard to make me feel at ease.”

The “Tonight Show” booking was part of a flurry of interest in the versatile actor following his bravura performance as Puerto Rican gangster Bobby Texador in Sidney Lumet’s gritty urban thriller, “Q&A;,” which has generated critical raves.

“As heinous a character as he is, he never lies,” says Assante of the complex criminal, whom he plays with great ethnic flourish, stealing scenes from stars Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton. “To me, that trait makes him a noble character.”


A suave, darkly handsome New York stage actor, Assante made his screen debut in Sly Stallone’s “Paradise Alley” (1978), then played Goldie Hawn’s French fiance in “Private Benjamin” (1980). And then, a career lull of about a year and a half. “Maybe the town really thought I was French,” says Assante, who’s of Italian/Irish descent. “With my name and looks, a lot of people seem to think I’m European.”

He’s known for his riveting starring roles in small, independent films such as “I, the Jury” (1982) and “Belizaire the Cajun"(1986). But, he admits, “I was relegated to miniseries for a number of years to support myself. I’ve never really been courted by the studios. Because, except for ‘Private Benjamin,’ I wasn’t in big hits.”

Assante, 40, who lives with his wife and two young daughters on a farm about an hour from Manhattan, has “Eternity” upcoming, co-starring with Jon Voight. And he’s “in discussions” about two possible film roles, one involving Vietnamese boat people, the other a satire on Boston politics.

Neither involves a major studio or director, but Assante assures us: “They’re both very legitimately produced by the L.A. film community.”