Sal Sortino, actor and artist: a life of dreams and challenges

by Anna Ciampolini Foschi

“My interest for an acting career? Well, it all began when I was a pilot on commercial airlines. I was very young, got my pilot’s licence before completing Grad. 12. I flew commercial aircraft from 1973 to the early 1980s. My goal was to join the military, the Air Force, but I got in a nearly fatal accident and lost my confidence.”  Salvatore (Sal) Sortino talks about his past with a calm detachment, yet his life has been full of challenges and even heartbreak, but he is a fighter. Sal was born in Francofonte, near Siracusa in Sicily, and came to Canada with his family in 1967, when he was 10. After the accident, Sal took time off to reflect on his future and took a job as a part-time taxi driver. He hired a tutor to complete his Grade 12 graduation certificate because he wanted to further his education and go to college. But things took a slightly different pattern when he went for an acting audition at Langara College’s well-known Studio 58. From then on, Sal realized that acting was his vocation and enrolled in a two-year acting course at Langara. Even if he did not graduate, he continued to pursue his studies, and in 1988 went to New York to enroll in the prestigious HB Studio, where many legendary movie and theatre stars are teaching. After returning to Vancouver, Sal made a bold move and wrote to Italian filmmaker Pupi Avati asking for a role. He knew Avati only by fame but did not hesitate to go to Rome to meet him for an audition.

Avati introduced him to key people in the Italian movie industry, “a very different world with a very different structure and organization than the North American industry,” he remarks. Sal was able to keep some connections and later had an opportunity to audition for a role in Godfather Part 3, starring Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, and other big Hollywood names. During his long career as a character actor, Sal met the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, his sister Talia Shire of the “Rocky” film series, and Stanley Tucci, one of the finest Italian-American actors.  An audition he did for the movie The Whole Shebang starring Tucci, Bridget Fonda, and Giancarlo Giannini went well, but a legal controversy stalled the movie’s release. It was finally released years after its completion. This circumstance, according to Sal, hampered the movie’s success at the box office and did not yield the career breakthrough that Sal had hoped.

However, Sal’s true vocation and professional training are always been focused on live theatre performance. When he talks about the different techniques to portray a character on stage compared to the acting style that works best on camera he gets very passionate.  Despite years of working in the big screen and TV industry, he still feels more drawn to live theatre.  In 1986, Sal accepted a starring role in the amateur production of Marco Micone’s play Voiceless People at Vancouver Italian Cultural Centre, where his earnest portrayal of a young working-class Italian immigrant was received with spontaneous applause.  Later, he acted in a series of successful stage performances like Breaking Legs a comedy by Tom Dulack at the Arts Club Theater on Granville Island, where he played Frankie the Bookmaker with an irresistible comic timing, and then he was Doc, the wise bartender in West Side Story at the Stanley Theatre. Sal recalls that his mother, Concetta,  died just three days before the play’s final performance, but he decided to go on stage anyway and dedicate the show to her memory. That was his last appearance on stage. To this day, Sal continues his activity as a TV and movie actor. He has been featured in the TV series Watchmen, Scammerhead, The Outer Limits, Arrow, and many more. For many years, he has also worked as a scenic technician for the theatre and film industry. His knowledge of technical media such as paint colours and other tools led years later to a new artistic pursuit. In 2008, the Vancouver film and theatre industry collapsed because of the global financial market meltdown, job offers evaporated, and Sortino faced tough times. “I ended up living in a hangar, in the place where I had learned to fly airplanes,” he recalls, admitting that he went through a very dark moment in his life. But, by his definition, he is first and foremost a self-made man, a fighter in search of new horizons. He started going to the public library to read books about painting, perspective, shading, and the use of different media, then started painting. His search for his true artistic expression reconnected him with his love for nature, the cosmos, the stars: “It took me out of the darkness I was in, it was therapeutic,” he says.

Sortino tells stories through his paintings and challenges government politics and societal failings. Social injustice is one of his concerns and the focus of his new project. For a while, he has been thinking of making a documentary film on the tragic human condition of the homeless and substance abuse addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, telling the story from the point of view and through the voice of one or two actual people who call these streets home. Sortino feels that there is not enough support for the less fortunate and that government and society need to hear more about the experiences of silenced and marginalized people. However, he is still trying to find sponsors or government grants to get his project off the ground, but believes that it can be difficult to obtain financial support for the arts, especially in a rather materialistic city like Vancouver. He is passionate and genuinely committed to all the interests and activities that enriched his life, from acting to writing, painting, photography, cooking, and flying. “I have been through a lot in life,” he says, but over the years, he embarked on a personal journey in search of inner peace, on a path of compassionate wisdom that helped him to overcome his darkest hours and find a balance in later life.

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