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THE SOPRANOS
(Created by David Chase)

 “I got the world by the balls and I can't stop feeling like a miserable prick

THE SOPRANOS   

Created by David Chase . TV . 1999-2007.

 

As the car with the determined big guy at the wheel leaves the Lincoln tunnel and heads to the tollbooth for the New Jersey Turnpike and his radio throbs with  the British Alabma 3 group’s Woke Up This Morning  (“Got yourself a gun”)… you just knew this was due to be something  big.

Yet Fox had turned it down!

“The reason they didn’t make that show - and I thank God every day that they didn’t - is I made a gangster show, an hour-long mob show and I didn’t kill anybody,”said creator-writer-producer-director David Chase. “They were probably going: What’s this? Where’s the violence, where’s the shooting? By the time. HBO got hold of it, I made sure that somebody got killed… ”

Ah, HBO, home of Sex and the City and Oz. In 1997, the pay-TV giant had OKed a pilot for the pitch -  "a mobster in therapy having problems with his mother" - in 1997, then dillied-dallied for nearly two years about greenlighting a series. “Maybe it was because they’d never seen anything like it before,” said Chase, “and probably they thought it was too rough. And who’s going to want to look at this overweight guy huffing and puffing his way through murders? I guess that’s what it was. I never asked them.”

Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Original Programming, loved it. He even understood it. ”Thisshow is about a guy who's turning 40. He's inherited a business from his dad. He's trying to bring it into the modern age. He's got all the responsibilities that go along with that. He's got an overbearing mom that he's still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he's had an affair. He's got two teenage kids, and he's dealing with the realities of what that is. He's anxious; he's depressed. He starts to see a therapist because he's searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he's the Don of New Jersey.”

Actress Lorraine Braco got tired of sitting around doing nothig - earning nothing! - while waiting to know if the pilot would be picked up and she could continue playing Dr Melfi. Or not. She needed to know. She had a mortgage and kids, after all. She called Albrecht at HBO. “I tell him, this is the greatest thing I’ve seen in five years. No movie or television series out there can touch it.

 

So what’s the problem?
Too expensive,  he said.

 

Well, they found the money...  And episode #1 - the pilot - written in 1997  was an instant hit  on January 10, 199, and stayed that way  - touted by many and having gained numerous swards, as the greatest TV series ever made - until the mystery finale, #86: Made In America, on June 10, 2007.  "This wasn’t four pretty women jn Manhattan. This was a bunch of fat guys from Jersey. It was an incredible leap of faith," declared the determined big guy who was and forever will be…

Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano Sr .  When Fox seemed interested, it wanted Anthony LaPaglia for the series.The Aussie was oftencast as New York tough guys. (His Al Capone  was dropped in Sam Mendes’ final cut of Road to Perdition, 2002).  Instead of the Mafia, LaPaglia went into law enforcement as an FBI agent in Without A Trace, 2002-2007. His brother, Jonathan, was Michael The Cleaver in episode #79: Stage 5, in the final season.

For HBO, Chase recalled, “it was an audition after audition after audition.” In they came, the ever hopefuls, to a small space above a New York dance studio on 79th Street or at Silvercup Sudios in Queens, where much of the show would be s shot.

Topping HBO’s wish list was Ray Liotta, from the 1989 GoodFellast; some 26 others from the Martin Scorsese classic worked in the series. ”Not an homage,” Chase insisted.  “They were the best people.”  They included Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony The Lip, who won his own movie in 2018: Green Book.  Viggo Mortensen played him and won an Oscar nomination.

Liotta, however, refused all TV offers. Stupido! So he also turned down Joe Pantoliano’s role of Ralph Cifaretto: also arrogan, disrespectful, obnoxious.  And quickly rubbed out. (Having learned his lesson, Liotta made sure he got into Chase’s prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, 2019).

Next for Tony (ex-Tommy) Soprano was a musician.  Steven Van Zandt, a guitartist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Little Stevie impressed Chase with his humour and and magnetism during the induction of The Rascals into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. What’s more, he reminded Chase of Al Pacino.

The “really good actor” Michael Rispoli came close to being Tony - and became ailing Jersey boss Jackie Aprile Sr. And, later, the Tony-esque Rudy Pipilo  in HBO’s The Deuce, 2017-2018.   Also in contention, even though he wasn’t Italian-American, was David Proval, who wound up as Rispoli‘s brother, Richie Aprile. “What my life was about, what Richie Aprile's life was about, it came together. Thaty’s very rare.”

Both guys - and James Gandolfini - were taken to Los Angeles for HBO to look them over. Van Zandt noticed Jim and told casting director Sheila Jaffe: “I just  saw him in a movie called True Romance and I think he would be a terrific Tony Soprano. And they were like, ‘Well, as far as we know you got the part but we will mention that to David’.”

That was most generous of Van Zandt, considering he was out of work.  Boss Springsteen had put his group on hiatus for 18 years! ”I just literally walking my dog.”

HBO, however ruled out  Van Zandt.   

So, in fact, did Van Zandt. For the exact same reason: he’d never acted before. “I feel kinda bad taking another actor’s part,” he told me when he was the first Sopranos star to to hit Paris. “I’m just a guitar player. These guys, they go to school, they go Off Broadway, they work for five, ten years honing their craft… and being waiters.”

OK, said Chase, he’d write something brand new, just for him: Soprano’s closest friend and consigliere  Silvio “Sil” Dante  (“Make him disappear or make nice”)  in suits made by real gangster John Gotti’s tailor!  Mrs Steven, Maureen, played his Jersey wife, Gabriella.

Naturally, it would, have been a different show with Van Zandt.  “More of a comedy,”Chase agreed. “Then you saw Jim Gandolfini… It was the same words, the same dialogue and it was funny.  But it was also brutal.”

 

Then came Gandolfini 

and his astonishing audition.

 

Naturally, it would, have been a different show with Van Zandt.  “More of a comedy,” Chase agreed. “Then you saw Jim Gandolfini… It was the same words, the same dialogue and it was funny.  But it was also brutal.

“He came in and he was all huffing and puffing,” Chase told Deadline's Mike Fleming Jr.  “He started, and then he stopped in the middle of it and said : ‘I can’t do this today. I can’t do this. I haven’t prepared right.’ And he left, in the middle of the audition…  We all believed in him but did we believe he would come back? Finally, somehow or other he came to my house in Los Angeles and we taped it and that was the end of that. His eyes grabbed my attention right away, those eyes that could be so sad, and then so ferocious. There was something about him, as large as he was, and as capable of an actor, there was something sad there. I guess I was attracted to that.”

“Oh, it was wonderful,”said Van Zandt. “It’s an entirely different approach when you’re as big a man as he was. Everything is a lot easier in terms of being an authority figure, if you’re bigger… He was completely psychotic in the True Romance video, scarier than he ever got in Sopranos. So, I knew he could do that. And when you see how completely charming he can be also, that’s the combination you want… intimidating and charming simultaneously. That’s the perfect combination. You don’t have to be as verbally threatening when you have that kind of imposing figure.”

Mathew Weiner, who directed 12 shows, went on to create Mad Menby following his theory about the Sopranos’ success. ”The casting was great because you didn’t know who any of those people were.”  

Here are some, of them…

Livia Soprano .  Anne Bancroft was always Chase’s idea for Tony’s mother, Livia (like Roman Emperor Augustus’ evil mother in I, Claudius. 1976). “This was based on my mother, and so I knew what it should sound like and act like. Nancy [Marchand]  was probably the 98th actress to come in. She sat down and did it and I thought : Christ, that’s my mother - she’s channeling my mother!  My wife said the same thing. All my relatives said that…  The complaining, the endless complaining.  ‘I’m not going to drive when it rains’ and ‘Psychiatry is just a racket for the Jews.’ Those are all my mother.”

 “Please keep me working, David,” Nancy told him. “That’s keeping me alive.” Both actresses were dead from cancer before the end of the series. CGI added Nancy’s face to a body double after she died at the start of the third season in 2000.

Christopher Moltisanti .  Christian Maelen was among early ideas for Tony’s … well, Tony said his nephew, though Christopher  was a cousin by marriage and his protégé. Michael Imperioli nailed his test piece. Without realising it.  "David had a poker face, so I thought he wasn't into me, and he kept giving me notes and having me try it again, which often is a sign that you're not doing it right.” He’d been seen, thanks to GoodFellas - "the first movie I was in that people actually saw.”

 

If GoodFellas opened the door,

The Sopranos gave him the key.

 

Win or lose, he wasn’t fussed.   “From the pilot, you really couldn’t tell the scope of where the show was going. Is it going to be a comedy? A spoof? It wasn’t till later… that I realized the depths and complexity.” Including for Christopher’s heroin addiction.

Imperioli had lost out to John Turturro for Spike Lee’s Clockers,1994 – and was compensated with the first of his many screen cops. He would write five of the 86 episodes.  His day had come.

His birthday, too, when a bunch of the cast promoed in Paris and I joined fhem at  dinner  on March 26, 2000 - which happened to my birthday, as well.  “Well, WTF ya doin’ here then?” they chorused. “Because The Sopranos are in town and my editor said: Go get ‘em!” It was a memorable evening. There were more of them than expected, so I hadn’t researched everyone. They understood and were just great.

More tenor than soprano, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) talked about his latest album of US and Italiana songs. And big Jim Gandolfini fondly reminisced about his one and only French movie, Alain Corneau’s Le nouvel monde, in 1994. He enjoyed tre experience more than his role - “a racist US Army sergeant, circa 1943.”

As for Chris Maelen, he later voiced Joey LaRocca, son of Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, in The Sopranos: Road To Respectvideo-game. Incidentally, Gandolfini was asked to voice the great white shark mobster, Don Lino, in Shark Tale, 2003, wherein Michael Imperioli  was Frankie… what you might call a hit-shark in a shark hit).

Dr Jennifer Melfi .   After her GoodFellas stint, Lorraine Bracco was offered every possible form of Mafia female. “Gal. Girl. Wife. Mistress Daughter.” David Chase saw her as Tony’s wife, Carmela, until realising “we can’t do that because she played that role in GoodFellas.”  Lorraine’s opinion, excactly. Her agent made her  read for Melfi  and told her not to say you didn’t want to play  Carmela. But she did, of course.

“I had a high regard for HBO but I was like: ‘Yo, I did this and you can’t do it any better than GoodFellas.” She wanted to be  Melfi (named after Chase’s grandmother and based on bis own shrink, Dr Lorraine Kaufman). Her agent tutt-tutted. ”it’s called The Sopranos, not Dr Melfi.” Bracco didn’t know Chase but, as they swopped therapy stories, she fell for him. And then for Gandolfini. “He was charismatic. He had energy. He was like a big bear. He took over.”

Carmella Soprano .  Time was running out after  Bracco rerjected Mrs S  and Edie Falco, already an HBO star in thje prison drama, Oz,  was asked to audition, “I’d heard about it from my actor friends. But… I thought it was about singers. [She was not alone, which is why HBO added a gun to the show’s logo]. When I read it I thought, I know exactly who this woman is, and I know I’ll never get cast. It was Marisa Tomei, Annabella Sciorra, these standardly Italian looking people who get cast here. I don’t know what made David decide I was what he was looking for.”

She was the last major role to be cast. “We can do Oz without her character,”said HBO’s Albrecht,  “but we can’t do Sopranos without finding Carmela.”

Corrado Erico “Uncle Junior” Soprano .   After their readings, Tony Sirico and Frank Vincent got the same phone call from David Chase.  “You didn’t get Uncle Junior. But I have something in mind...” Vincent became Phil Leotardo, eventually boss of New York’s Lupertazzi Family (and Tony’s sworn enemy) during his 31 shows, 2004-2007.  Sirico, ex-criminal turned actor,  agreed to be Tony’s lieutenant, Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri,  “as long as he’s no rat.”  No, you’ll like him, promised Chase. And Sirico loved him for the full 86 shows Same number as for Dominic Chianese, as  the jealous, murderous Junior, who felt he should be boss of Tony’s family. “I was typecast, because of The Godfather Part  2 and other  authortarians,” he told me in Paris.  He soon found he’d been born for this character. “What David wrote for Uncle Junior, every one of those lines are precious to me.” (Who can forget  Pass the red peppersSince Moses wore short pants…and better yet:  I got the Feds so far up my ass I can taste the Brylcreem).

Meadow Soprano .  Chase first asked Grace Johnson to be Tony Soprano’s daughter.  He got a rather unique refusal. “Sorry, but I’m still going to school.”  Enter: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, from community theatre and  summer stock musicals. She tested with a scene arguing with  Carmela about a ski trip. “I was well-versed in arguing with my mother about wanting to do things that she wasn’t going to let me do - it wasn’t a far stretch.“  She then puzzled Chase by offering to sing acapellaas there was no accompanist on hand.“I didn’t realise it wasn’t a show about singers. But David actually did let Meadow sing in the show.”

Janice Soprano .  “Everyone was there,” said Aida Turturro, “Including one of my favourite actresses -  Marcia Gay Harden. Thank God she wasn’t right for the part.”  Annabella Sciorra was also called in. “He wanted me to wear age make-up and dye my hair. She was supposed to be much older than Tony and I wasn’t ready to do that - which is kinda dumb.”  She did win seven episodes as Gloria Trillo during 2001-2004. Also in the frame: singer-actress Patti LuPone - but it was her brother, Robert, who won  a six-episode gig as  the Sopranos’ neighbour, Dr Bruce Cusamano.

It was Gandiolfini who called Aida (John Turturro’s cousin) about playing his sister.They had known each other since 1992, acted in A Streetcar Named Desire. “So we knew we immediately had like a connection… There was so much more love in Tony even though yes, he does his business because is what he grew up with. I think Janice was more ill because she had this jealousy… very egotistical. It was always all about her. But I never saw her as a bad person”

Skip Lipari .  Steve Schirripa auditioned while on a visit  home for a wedding from his  duties  at the Riviera Hotrel in Vegas. He read for  the FBI agent Lipari and won 53 shows as the bulky Bobby “Bacala”Baccalieri  - aka “cannoli with legs.” His weight made him the butt of such jokes. Truth was he was not much fatter than Tony Soprano - and worea fat suit for his first two seasons before he got enough of his own.  The thinner Louis Lombardi played Lipari.

Dr Krakower . “I’m the wrong Jew. You need a whole other kind of Jew for this doctor.  I’m miscast, forgive me.”  This was Mike Nichols, the great Broadway and Hopllywood  director (Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, The Graduate. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf), talking to David Chase, about Dr Krakower. He was Carmela’s  Ukrainian-Russian shrink, who told her to “take what is left of the children,” divorce Tony, and accept none of his “blood money” as almony or child support… (Nichols was simply following the coda of his production  company Friwaft -  Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear To Tread!). 

“There was a reading with about 40 people sitting around many tables put together, with a lot of spaghetti behind us, and we read that week’s script,” Nichols recalled. “I was the only person at the table who had to act. Everybody else wastheir character.” He told Chase: “I’m no good, because I’m not an actor.” His former comedy partner, Elaine May, disagreed: “He’s an amazingly good actor, really good, who constantly says he isn’t.” 

Krakower proved the penultimate of the 43 screen roles for Boyar, a Brooklyn lawyer-turned actor. Chase persuaded another director, Peter Bogdanovich, to be Dr Melfi’s shrink,Dr Elliot Kupferberg. (Other film-makers won short roles: Steve Buscemi, Jon Favreau, Paul Mazursky, Sydney Pollack).  

Jackie Aprile Jr. & Matt Bevilaqua .   Max Casella, a DC actor with the great Brooklyn accent, tested for the two New Jersey wiseguys. They lasted a single season only, while the often bruised and battered “soldier,” Benito “Benny” Fazio, given to Casella by Chase lasted 28 episodes.

Irina & Father Phil .   They were played by Siberia Federico and Michael Santoro  in the pilot and thereafter by Ukranian actress  Oksana Lada  (who later wore Yellow Is The New Black) and Paul Schultze., from the 24 real-time series.

And so (too soon, too soon!!) to the finale, #86: Made In America. The end. And, indeed, the ending…

Tony is joined at a restaurant for dinner by Carmela and his son AJ (Robert Iler).  Tony, as usual, eyeballs everybody in the joint, particularly the guy watchng him from the counter… who then goes through the toilet door which, as Wikipedia delighted in pointing out, is "directly facing and approximately 90 degrees" to the family’s table.

Meadow arrives outside,  opens the door which rings a bell, and enters. Tony looks up - CUT to black screen. And after a beat or three, the credits scrawl.  And an immediate and international WTF? Was a gun hidden, a la The Godfather, in the toilet? Is Tony hit? If so, by whom?  The Lupertazzi family?Websites are still searching for answers. Chase says he wasn’t meaning to stoke any controverrsy. "Everything you need to know about the show's ending is there."

So there.

Six years later, James Gandolfini made Nicole Holofcener’s delightful movie, Enough Said, a 50-something romance between Jim and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.   “Not a natural fit for me," said Jim. What do actors know? Once again, he won the best  reviews of his life. He never saw them. Nor the film. While on holiday in Rome with his son, he died from heart attack on June 19, 2013.

His devastated colleagues felt the same as his tele-cousin Michael Imperioli. Although really impressed by the trailer showed how much the character of Albert captured the real Jim - humble, affable, incredibly lovable noted US critic Michael Adams - Michael  couldn't face watching  his friend in the full film.  Not… yet.

So… There was the song. There was David’s guys and David’s words. There was the credibility, the cameraderie, the kudos. Above all else, there was Jim -  no one knew that better than  his fellow actors.

Steven Van Zandt had a special memory.  “Every single day Jimmy would say: ‘Look in the mirror here. Look at this guy. Can you believe they cast me as the lead in this show?’ He was very, very humble about it and he had that personality of a character actor. He never had that diva… I’m-something-special attitude that creates tension on the set.Jimmy had respect for me right away because of what I had done in my other career and so he set that tone on the entire set …totally respectful to me all the way. And the thing is, you do a scene with Jimmy Gandolfini, you walk away a better actor, and that was the truth."

Joe Pantoliano: "I always said that Jimmy was the sun and we were the planets circling around him.  He was there all the time. To be Tony Soprano and the way they wrote that, he didn’t have many days off. He busted his ass and it got to him… It was like we weresprinters and he was running marathons."

Michael  Imperioli:  "Jim was a great actor and it was one of those rare times when a great actor and a great role coincides. He got the role that really allowed him to show the full scope of what he could do as an actor... and he was always committed 100%."

 

David Chase and his  actors were (mainly) talking to America’s best interviewer Mike Fleming Jr., @ Hollywood Deadline, for the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos, in January 2019. just weeks before announcing (exclusively, of course) that Michael Gandolfini, the son, would  portray young Tony Soprano  in David Chase’s Sopranosprequel film, The Many Saints of Newark. Thanks, Mike.

And, indeed, thanks David, Michael, Steven, Edie, Dominic and, above all, Jim for their generosituy in Paris.





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