Being born in a family with a distinct heritage is one thing, how said heritage is perceived and the respect paid to the family roots is what really matters. Among those who always felt a deep connection and quickly became one of the most beloved Italian American actors in the community is Lorraine Bracco.
Lorraine was born in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge and grew up in Westbury, Long Island. Her father Salvatore was born in Detroit to Italian parents while her mother Eileen Molyneux was from England with French parents.
They met during World War II and they came to the United States together, Eileen being essentially what it was called a war bride. They were a working class family, Salvatore working hard as a fish dealer at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market to support his wife and his three children. When Lorraine was only 19, she moved to France with all of her family and started a successful career in modeling, working with Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others.
While living in Paris, she made her film debut in Duos sur canapé and she began taking roles in several French movies. She was noticed by legendary director Lina Wertmüller who was so mesmerized by her presence to the point of hiring her for not just one but two movies, Un complicato intrigo di donne, vicoli e delitti and In una notte di chiaro di luna. The Italian director and novelist saw in Lorraine the looks and passion of a young Sophia Loren and gave her roles that enhanced her stage persona. After having become fluent in both French and Italian, Lorraine made her way back to the States, focusing on movies over fashion.
A handful of small roles in cult comedies of the late eighties followed until she landed the role that would change her life, Karen Friedman, the “nice Jewish girl” who gets drawn into the mobsters life when she marries Henry Hill, in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Preparing to embody the real life character proved challenging, getting in touch with women in the mafia was nearly impossible, being a very tight-knit community. Bracco decided to move away from the idea of meeting the real Karen and she created the character from within, looking at her own cultural background. During a recent Q and A session for the 25th anniversary of the film Bracco said, “I had an Italian father, but I have an English mother. I learned a lot about being Italian from my dad, but we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, which helped create Karen. I could relate to her as a young girl.” It was also important to really make her character stand out, since the movie and the subject matter were so male-dominated.
All that dedication and hard work paid off with an Oscar nomination for best actress in a supporting role. The movie became an instant classic, but not everybody embraced it the same way. Scorsese often tells the story on how he got banned from some Italian restaurants after the theatre release because of the way Italians were portrayed in the movie. For Bracco, instead, it was smooth sailing from that point on. She turned a strong performance in the Sean Connery starrer Medicine Man and many other successful films until a call came for another mafia related material, The Sopranos. David Chase, the show’s creator, wanted Lorraine to play Carmela, Tony’s wife. Lorraine strongly fought to audition for the part of Dr Melfi instead. Her portrayal of a big spending mafia wife in Goodfellas was nearly perfect, she felt she could never top that performance for similar characters in future projects. With all the accolades and attention that movie had all she was offered was mafia related roles, wife, daughter, mistress. That is why she stood her ground and convinced Chase to give her a shot at Dr Melfi. It became one of her biggest roles to date, but that didn’t come without consequences. Bracco has said that the psychiatrist was a really soul consuming role to play, because it was a restrained character that couldn’t show her emotions. Dr Melfi was sad and depressed most of the time and couldn’t appear weak in Tony’s eyes, otherwise their relationship would fall apart.
That took a toll on Bracco because in reality she’s a very loud, jovial and outspoken person who wears her heart on her sleeves. Being the opposite for the whole duration of the show was obviously not an easy task. She was also concerned about her father’s opinion of the portrayal of Italians, which he would quickly dismiss with, “Lorraine, it’s a TV show.” Bracco developed a very strong bond with co-star James Gandolfini. The death of both her parents and the fellow actor in the space of two years shook up her life. Her mother and father passed away to heart-related diseases within eleven days of one another. She had just come out of depression (the result of a long and excruciating custody battle for her daughter); the loss of those she held dearest made her turn her life around. It was a wakeup call to improve her health. She then went on a fourteen days liver detox, changing her diet, cutting out processed foods, sugar, gluten and dairy and giving a great deal of attention to her health. She lost 35 pounds over the course of a year. The journey into finding new reasons to live and bringing out her inner beauty was later recounted in her book To the Fullest: The Clean Up Your Act Plan to Lose Weight, Rejuvenate, and Be the Best You Can Be. Nowadays she says she is the happiest she has ever been.