- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

LOS ANGELES — The man who made “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon” clearly sees something more in action star Vin Diesel than do most people.

For his first film since 1999’s “Gloria,” director Sidney Lumet cast Mr. Diesel to star in “Find Me Guilty,” the story of Lucchese crime family member Jackie DiNorscio, who staged a sort of stand-up-comic routine defending himself at a mammoth mob trial in the late 1980s. It opens today.

Mr. Diesel started as a serious stage actor in New York City, although movie fans tend to think of him as the brooding bruiser of “The Fast and the Furious.”

He made his own way early on, writing, directing and starring in a short film that played at the Cannes Film Festival and doing the same for a feature that made it into the Sundance Film Festival. Yet people think of Mr. Diesel as that reckless agent blowing things up in “XXX.”

However, he projects the kind of impish humor that made DiNorscio the star attraction at the Lucchese trial, and fans may think his comic talents are limited to mocking his stoic action image as he did in the family flick “The Pacifier.”

So what’s Mr. Lumet seeing that most of the rest of us aren’t?

“When this picture came up, there was no doubt in my mind,” says Mr. Lumet, who had seen the range Mr. Diesel displays in his short film “Multi-Facial,” a career-starter that prompted Steven Spielberg to create a role for the actor in “Saving Private Ryan.”

“I knew I wasn’t buying a pig in a poke. I knew how good he was,” Mr. Lumet says.

For Mr. Diesel, 38, “Find Me Guilty” is a maneuver to help carve out a career that will keep him acting well beyond the usual expiration date of action heroes.

” ‘Find Me Guilty’ protects the career 20 years from now,” he says. “Which is why you say, ‘No, I’m not going to do the big action film. I’m going to do this little thing which is all Sidney. No money, just Sidney. Because what I can get learning-wise, experience-wise will allow me to be a working actor in my 60s and in my 70s.’ ”

As DiNorscio, Mr. Diesel plays a character about 10 years older than he actually is. He packed on 30 pounds of flab and underwent two hours of makeup a day to resemble the overweight DiNorscio, who was serving a 30-year sentence on drug charges when he decided to act as his own lawyer at the racketeering trial of 21 Lucchese associates.

Dragging on for 21 months, the trial (1987-88) was lightened by the antics of DiNorscio, who told a dirty joke in his opening argument and had jurors and others in the courtroom in stitches with his patter, proclaiming, “I’m no gangster, I’m a gagster.”

If the notion of Mr. Diesel collaborating with Mr. Lumet sounds surprising, the actor’s next project will turn even more heads.

Mr. Diesel is going the Mel Gibson route with the “Braveheart”-like epic “Hannibal,” about the 3rd century B.C. Carthaginian leader who led an army riding elephants across the Alps in an assault on Rome.

He plans to direct “Hannibal” himself and will star in the title role. The film also will take a cue from Mr. Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”: Mr. Diesel wants to shoot the film in Greek, Latin and ancient Punic.

He hopes to begin production next fall and is aiming for a 2007 release.

“It’s been a passion project,” Mr. Diesel says. “The whole point of doing an epic auteur picture, directing an epic film, it’s one thing to do the Woody Allen thing. It’s another thing to do ‘Braveheart.’

“If you do something like that, you want to go all the way. Usually, you want to go all the way when the subject matter or topic speaks to you so much that you have these scenes playing out in your head all the time. That’s usually a pretty good indication that you need to find a way to make it.”

Growing up in New York City, Mr. Diesel started acting at age 7 after he and a few friends wandered into a theater and were goofing around with some props. A woman offered them $20 a week to appear in a play that required children.

Mr. Diesel never imagined himself as an action hero, but he went from “skinny kid” to buff physique during the nine years he spent as a nightclub bouncer so he would have his days free to pursue acting jobs.

A washout early on in Hollywood, he was plucked from independent-film obscurity when Mr. Spielberg cast him in “Saving Private Ryan.” Mr. Diesel went on to provide the voice of the huge robot in the animated tale “The Iron Giant,” then starred in the science-fiction horror hit “Pitch Black,” whose sequel, “The Chronicles of Riddick,” flopped two years ago.

He rebounded with last year’s “The Pacifier,” Disney’s hit family film about a Navy SEAL assigned to baby-sit the children of a government scientist. Mr. Diesel wasn’t trying to break out of the action mold. He just wanted to make something kid-friendly.

“The honest reason was my niece and nephew weren’t allowed to see Uncle Vin movies, and they’re my biggest fans,” Mr. Diesel says. “I guess I got a little sick of, ‘No, you can’t come to this one; no, you can’t come to that one.’ And they’re, ‘But I saw the poster, Uncle Vin.’ ‘No, your father won’t let you see this one.’ And so I decided to make a Disney movie. It was an opportunity to do a picture for the kids.”

Mr. Diesel has flopped in the darker action-oriented movies “Knockaround Guys” and “A Man Apart,” but he showed solid acting chops with a supporting role in the Wall Street drama “Boiler Room,” a film that helped persuade Mr. Lumet that he had the right man for “Find Me Guilty.”

“We all have a prejudice about action films. It’s sort of like, if they’re beautiful and blonde, she can’t act, and we should know better by now,” Mr. Lumet says. “I’ve heard it from people, ‘What are you doing, doing a picture with Vin Diesel?’ They’re not giving him the credit he deserves. Sometimes, I just say, ‘Wait till you see him in the picture.’ ”

Mr. Diesel says his family was puzzled that he was doing a small-budgeted character piece rather than grabbing a huge salary for another action flick. Yet the chance to work with a filmmaker who oversaw Marlon Brando in “The Fugitive Kind” and Al Pacino in “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” was too good to pass up.

“I had spent my life studying these guys, looking up to them, watching their work,” Mr. Diesel says. “Now I was able to have my work watched over by the same guy who was watching them. So that was an easy choice.”

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