TAMPA — Like many children who grew up playing baseball, Tom Parnell dreamed of one day pitching in Yankee Stadium.
He never did.
But Parnell, now an independent film producer, is thrilled that another long-held dream has indeed come to pass: signing a big-name actor on the merits of his script rather than the paycheck.
At $500,000, Parnell’s film’s budget is a long way from the tens of millions spent on Hollywood films.
Still, last week, he started working with Armand Assante in Tampa as detective Paul Jordan in Parnell’s film “120/80,” about a man who suffers a heart attack and begins a violent campaign to identify and eliminate the stresses in his life.
“I never imagined this,” said Parnell, 55. “To get a star like Armand Assante — wow. I got goose bumps when I heard him reading dialogue I wrote.”
Said Assante, “I think this film has real potential. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Many know Assante as the Emmy Award-winning, four-time Golden Globe-nominated actor from Hollywood hits such as “The Mambo Kings,” “American Gangster” and “1492: Conquest of Paradise.”
Assante is also much sought-after in the world of independent film.
In 1986, he starred in “Belizaire the Cajun,” one of the first independent films to earn fame following a screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
Founded in 1984, through the film lab Sundance Institute created by actor Robert Redford, the film festival is now considered one of the premiere independent film events in the world, debuting works such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Clerks, “The Usual Suspects” and “The Blair Witch Project.”
“Back then Sundance was like a tiny village,” Assante told the Tribune. “Now it is an entire industry.”
Assante hasn’t changed, though, in what keeps him supporting independent films.
By 1985, he had been cast opposite stars such as Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin” and Dudley Moore in “Unfaithfully Yours.” He was touted as one of Hollywood’s top leading men, yet he took a break to take a role in “Belizaire the Cajun.”
Before its Sundance premiere, he said it’s difficult to find movies in Hollywood that deal with “human relations.”
“Sure it would be easy to pick up heavy money from big-studio productions,” he told the Associated Press then. “But if you want to hold onto your values and achieve some kind of growth, you got to go looking.”
He echoed that sentiment almost 30 years later describing the appeal of “120/80.”
“The film is a psychological suspense thriller that is all about human relations,” he told The Tampa Tribune. “And that’s what I want in a script and a production. The success of independent films is also based on the human relations of the people who make it. It isn’t about bureaucracy or budgets. It’s about artists coming together over a creative goal.”
This philosophy, said Mark Savage, director of “120/80,” makes Assante an easy actor to work with.
“He understands this film is about more than just him,” Savage said. “He hasn’t asked for a fancy dressing room or anything like that. He just focuses on his scenes and his ability has blown me away.”
Assante said he wouldn’t have taken the role unless he was confident in the abilities of Savage and Parnell.
Once he approved the script, he researched Savage as a director and was impressed.
He called friends of his in the Tampa film industry to ask their opinions on the project and received positive feedback.
Production in the Tampa Bay area sealed the deal for him.
“I would never take a role based on location,” said Assante. “But it being in Tampa helped. I have been trying to help Tampa make its film industry work and I hope this film helps the area get more films like it.”
Assante described Tampa’s film community as one with the infrastructure, talent and drive to become a hub for independent productions.
“It’s in its infancy stages,” he said. “Give it time.”
Assante’s link to Tampa began in 2009 when the Gasparilla Film Festival presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has since been involved with the festival as a member of its advisory board, host of events, teacher at acting seminars and a film presenter.
In 2012, his 27-minute documentary “Dialogue From the Steppes,” on his feelings for the people of Kazakhstan and their formation of an independent state, won the award for best short documentary at the Gasparilla Film Festival.
“He is awesome,” said Eric Odum, former president of the Gasparilla Film Festival, who brought Assante into its fold. “He genuinely understands the importance of independent film and goes above and beyond to promote it. I hope he continues to do films like this in Tampa so we can build a critical mass of indie productions here.”
He gives “120/80” instant credibility.
“He is known in markets around the world,” said Savage, director savage, an Australian. “Having him on board could open more doors with film distributors for sure.”
Tampa actor Ricky Wayne can attest to that. He acted alongside Assante in the independent film “The Chaos Experiment.”
At the time, Wayne’s credits were limited to a few low budget films and local theater. Appearing with Assante changed that. He now has almost 50 acting credits on his resume that include roles in the television series “The Glades,” “Treme,” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
The experience brought him more than bragging rights, though.
“It was a master class in acting,” Wayne said. “He is so effortless in his craft and was willing to give advice. And he treats everyone the same — whether you’re a 30-year veteran of the industry or someone on a set for the first time.”
“I want to prove that a great film does not need a huge budget,” Assante said.
“If you have the right team of creative minds working together that is all you need. I think ‘120/80’ has that mix.”