Dr. Melfi may have all the answers when she’s counseling Tony Soprano on the hit HBO series “The Sopranos,” but actress Lorraine Bracco admits she was actually depressed when she debuted in the role of the tough-talking therapist.
Bracco, 51, told “20/20” she needed her own shrink after years of great success, disastrous romances and near financial ruin. “I was a loser,” she said. “A big fat loser!” Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone who became a movie star playing gutsy, in-your-face women. She writes about her tumultuous life in her new book, “On the Couch,” detailing how her career began as a fantasy at age 18 when the Brooklyn beauty became a fashion model in Paris. Her fairy tale took a turn at 23 when she fell for a charming hair salon owner, Daniel Guerard, and discovered she was pregnant. “Basically, he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, where I come from you get married and you have the child.’ And he very happily said, ‘OK. Let’s do it,” Bracco said.
Hollywood Hits and Romances
As a young mom, Bracco’s life would soon change. After her daughter Margaux was born in 1979, it was clear that the marriage was a mistake, and it ended. Several years later, she met actor Harvey Keitel. “He was very intense,” Bracco said. “I was seduced.” Within months they were living together in New York. They never married, but in 1985 their daughter, Stella, was born. Two years later Keitel helped Bracco land a starring role opposite Tom Berenger in the movie “Someone to Watch Over Me.” But as her career grew, she says her relationship with the often moody Keitel began to unravel. He would disappear for days at a time, and she says she learned his old drug habit had returned. “I begged, I pleaded. He promised, he cried. It would be over, it would be over … and there were months where it was fine,” Bracco said.
Career Halt for Her Daughters
In the midst of the turmoil at home, Bracco became a bona fide movie star in 1990, playing the wife of a mobster in the critically acclaimed “Goodfellas.” An Oscar nomination put her at the top of the married-to-the-mob list as her relationship with Keitel hit bottom. While on location for “A Talent for the Game,” she had an affair with leading man Edward James Olmos, and would later confess the affair to Keitel. “He hated me for it. I disgusted him,” she said. “That was the beginning of the end. And I knew that. And maybe it was my way, my very immature un-Dr. Melfi-ish way to end that relationship.”
Bracco was determined to focus on her two daughters, making the tough career choice of turning down a role in “My Cousin Vinny.” “I asked myself, what is it you want, Lorraine? … You want to be a big, fat famous actress? Or do you want two decent young girls?” Bracco said. “You can’t have it all.” Marisa Tomei got the role, and an Oscar. Bracco was becoming increasingly preoccupied by a bitter custody battle with Keitel over their daughter, Stella, that would last through most of the 1990s. It became more complicated when Olmos, back in Lorraine’s life, was accused of child molestation by the teenage daughter of one of her friends. Olmos strongly denied the charges, and he and Bracco wed. In the end, she retained custody of Stella, but the marriage to Olmos fell apart.
Saved by ‘The Sopranos’
By the late 1990s, Bracco was sinking into a dark depression. After millions of dollars in legal fees, the once-golden actress was penniless and filed for bankruptcy. At her lowest point, she nearly ignored one of the few scripts that came her way, saying she was frustrated to be offered another mob story. “That’s all they see me for,” Bracco said. She rejected the part of Carmella on “The Sopranos” but was drawn to a smaller role, the educated, professional woman. The bold choice would finally make her a household name, yet even the role of Dr. Melfi was not enough to lift her mood. “I should have been dancing in the streets, because I’d worked so hard to get there. And I looked at myself in the mirror, and I went ‘why are you not just jumping for joy?'” Bracco said.
As she emerged from the fog, Bracco went public in a Zoloft commercail, which along with therapy helped to revive her spirit. With the final season of “The Sopranos” earning her a reported $4 million, Bracco is now financially and emotionally secure. Her new project is the Italian wine label, Bracco Wines, and she’s braving romance again with a much younger man, 32-year-old Jason Cippolla, a driver for “The Sopranos” cast. “I was more intimidated than Jason because of the age difference,” Bracco said. “I was like ‘Oh my God! What am I doing?'” She joked that as long as he’s older than her children, it’s OK. And for Bracco, life is now “fun.” “The kids are good, things are good,” she said. “I’ve paid off all my bills. And I feel like a kid.”