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John Turturro: A Soulful Truth Teller

Christine Passarella By

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John Turturro is one of those rare human beings who was born with a defiant grace. He is sure and stern about what moves him. His confidence radiates with a love that springs straight from his core. I think that is why he has high-quality friends and fans from all over the world. His art form as a thespian brings a sacred miracle it seems to me through each of his performances. This great and acclaimed actor has a willingness to be a soulful truth teller through each character he brings to the big screen, the theater and most recently in the HBO award-winning series The Night Of.

I remember the first time I saw John perform in an Off- Broadway play in the mid '80s, I was struck. The entire audience left the theater knowing we shared an emotionally powerful experience with him. The play was Steel on Steel and it was based on the story of his own father's journey. Years later he would turn this powerful play into the film Mac which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes. "Music is emotional transportation. It is the first form of prayer, for me, it is," John Turturro stated as my interview began with him. Turturro fits the profile of a human being creating a Coltranian path. His words remind me of the following statement by the majestic saxophonist John Coltrane, "I want to speak to their souls." In his chosen profession and in his humanity overall John Turturro is determined to keep moving, guided by his own inner voice. I had the pleasure of dining with John in the West Village of New York City. I interviewed him while we had a delicious northern Italian meal at Bar Pitti. In between courses, he spoke to the waiters in beautiful Italian as if it was his native tongue with a warmth and friendliness. John told me that if he could be anything else in life besides being an actor he would be either a great saxophonist or a great singer. Really John!! A saxophonist!!! "Yes, I am serious about this," he exclaimed.

Let me take you to the home in which the magnificent actor was raised, nestled in the black working-class community of Hollis, New York. It was filled with music weaving in and out of every room, and certainly into his young heart and soul. Life was rooted in the visceral through creativity, including the taste of delicious Italian food at the expert hands of his mother. The music was so integral it became part of the subconscious lives of his entire family. Perhaps many of us can relate to identifying potent songs that can be the soundtrack of our lives. John's father and mother loved music! His mother Katherine was a jazz singer for a brief time when she sang with her brothers who were all professional musicians. Also known as Kitty by her close friends and family, she loved pop, opera, classical, rock and roll, jazz, the blues, and gospel. "She is the most talented one in the family. She sang, drew, painted, made clothes, and danced. My mom wanted to be a dress designer and had beautiful dreams." Giving her tremendous respect and credit for being a dedicated and loving mother, he made it clear that she exposed him to brilliant films, theater, and stimulating music. "She always supported me, never made me think I was great. Just encouraged me to be myself, never inhibited me, and it was almost unspoken that whatever I accomplished she was proud of."

Katherine was born in Brooklyn and put in an orphanage for six years when her mother passed away when she was a young child. Eventually, her dad remarried and she had a new mother and could leave the orphanage, but soon her stepmom passed away too when Kitty was only 15. It was a hard life for her, but she was resilient and amazingly always stayed open to the possibilities in life. I had the honor of knowing Kitty Turturro in my journey and I can tell you she was strong, empathetic and filled with love. I remember an hour-long conversation I had with her about the educational system and her deep respect for good teachers. They were encouraging words because I am a teacher by profession. Kitty Turturro and her brilliant middle son John became best friends as he went into adulthood and followed his chosen path as an actor. "She was a big Billie Holiday fan. I even have her demo in which you can hear Billie's influence on her voice. She loved to dance the Jitter-bug at the Savoy in Harlem. My mother also loved listening to Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra too. She sang in the orphanage as a child and sang in the church over the years. She always sang. She treated my brothers, and I all the same, but I saw her as a person and not just a mother. I would defend her because she had a rough life. We had a close friendship."

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