‘The Sopranos’ Oral History, Part IV: When you spend six seasons making a show about an organized crime family that rings true, you’ll inevitably bump up against that criminal element, even if you are tapping history to create fictional storylines. If the mob feels you are celebrating their lawlessness, that is bad. If they believe you are ridiculing them and you piss them off, that might be as bad. Or worse.
DEADLINE: The Sopranos was filled with movie mob lore, especially around The Godfather. Mario Puzo always said it was fiction. But there is Christopher Moltisanti, trying to impress director Jon Favreau on a
movie set by sharing mob stories breaking down how the Tommy Dorsey contract clash with Frank Sinatra informed the famous scene with the horse head in the bed of the Hollywood mogul. Did you borrow much from actual mob events in writing The Sopranos?
DAVID CHASE: The whole plot about Vito’s homosexuality was based on true stuff that we read in the paper about a captain, I think, in Staten Island. I shouldn’t say what family.
DEADLINE: That character, Vito Spatafore, played by Joseph R. Gannascole, was ostracized and treated as worse than a “rat” when word got out he was secretly gay. Even though he was one of Jersey boss Tony Soprano’s best earners, he was married to the niece of the New York mob boss, who was incensed enough to murder him and start the series’ final mob war. Where did you get all this intel?
CHASE: We had a consultant who gave us a lot of stuff, how the actual thing works.
DEADLINE: A mobster or former mobster?
CHASE: No, he was in law enforcement. He was an attorney, he was a prosecutor. We did hear some things from the actual people but by and large, you’re asking for trouble.
DEADLINE: From the landscaper who was brutalized when a mobster with a nephew tried to scare him away from his customers, to the sporting goods store owner whose degenerate gambling problem made it easy for Tony to break him and liquidate his store, every decent person who seemed to come in contact with these guys was routinely destroyed.
CHASE: My thought for the show was that you deal with devil, that’s what happens.
DEADLINE: Still, it must have been tempting to reach out to that dark side for reality checks.
CHASE: I had a cousin who was involved, and I never went to him. And then, towards the end, I said what the hell, I’ll have dinner with him. He was married to my cousin and we had dinner and he was telling me and my wife these stories. I said, I’ve always shied away from talking to you because I didn’t want to get you in trouble, and life gets complicated. And he said yeah, I know. I said, the show’s almost coming to an end. Maybe now we could sit down and you share some stuff with me. He said OK, and then I got in the car and I am driving home and I started thinking, Oh sh*t. Oh f*ck. And by the time I got back to the office the next day, there was already a request for Springsteen tickets. And then I started worrying. I call him up finally and I say listen, I know what we talked about it, but I don’t think we should do this. He said I was going to call you and tell you the same thing.
DEADLINE: I recall my colleague Peter Bart, who at Paramount put together The Godfather with Robert Evans, telling me that during the making of that film, the mob didn’t want it and people were threatened and hard backroom discussions had, this before the film came out and most of them loved it. You ever get feedback, good or bad?
CHASE: We got some feedback. The FBI had listened to some phone traffic and the FBI published the fact that the guys in the car were having a conversation and said The Sopranos was based on their family. He’s saying, look at so and so, and then look at this other idiot, he’s just like…that’s the only thing we ever got.
DEADLINE: How did that make you feel?
DEADLINE: That maybe you’d cut too close to the bone?
CHASE: Too close, yeah. Michael Imperioli had a bar downtown and one night he was behind the bar and there was a guy sitting at the end just drinking quietly. The place cleared out finally, and it was last call. Michael went over and told the guy that, and he says, “Right, I get you.” Then he said, “Listen, I think you should know there’s some people in New Jersey who don’t like you very much and aren’t very happy with you.” Michael said, “What do you mean?” “Just what I said.” And he left. Michael was scared. Nothing ever came of it.
DEADLINE: What did you do?
CHASE: I don’t know. What can you do? Change the way you do the show or don’t do the show, and quit? I don’t blame him. It made me nervous.
DEADLINE: Michael Imperioli, David and Joe Pantoliano mentioned this encounter in a bar. How unnerving was that?
IMPERIOLI: You know, usually, anybody who would…there was a lot of people who liked to pretend that they were connected to wise guys. Normally that’s not the way things happen. Like, anyone who says they’re wise guys, is never a wise guy. The real deal doesn’t talk about it. They’re not open about it. But it was a little weird. It was a big adjustment being relatively anonymous, even despite being in movies and television to some degree but all of a sudden being very well known. That was a bit unnerving, but for the most part it wasn’t really a problem.
CHASE: Other people on the show had relatives and I asked one person on the show who had the relatives, are we OK? He said, let me make a call. He made a few calls and he says yeah, we’re OK. I did the same thing with my cousin, before we had our meeting. Are we OK over there? He said, “I’ll call you back.” It took about a week and he said yeah, everything’s fine.
DEADLINE: That adds an extra set of things to worry about that most people who do TV shows don’t contend with…
CHASE: If the dragons are coming after you, they don’t make phone calls.
TERENCE WINTER: All of us were students of mob history and I grew up in Brooklyn in and around people like that. I never had anything to do with anybody in any real way, obviously, but just by osmosis, I came into the show knowing how these guys talked and thought. Frank Renzulli particularly was really well versed in the mob history, and knew guys like that in Boston where he grew up, so he really brought a level of authenticity to the show very early on.
David, of course, knew a ton about the mob. We mostly relied on the FBI who were on the Mafia beat, more to fact check details of things like OK, how would this kind of thing go down if somebody wants to put a hit on someone else, just to make sure we had it right. Most of the times I think we did. Occasionally the FBI would say oh no, Tony might go to this person and just have a sit-down and then such and such would happen, so it was really more the FBI who would keep us on the straight and narrow. Occasionally we would hear word back. Very famously David heard word back-filtered through some mob guy, and I don’t remember who it was, having watched Tony at a barbecue and the word was a Don wouldn’t wear shorts. So David worked that into the show. Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. at one point chastised Tony, saying oh, and by the way, I heard you wore shorts at a barbecue. A Don doesn’t wear shorts. We actually used it. It was a great little detail. It’s the kind of thing we wouldn’t think of, but in terms of protocol you look weak wearing shorts, so there you go.
DEADLINE: Bringing in every men who were destroyed by these mobsters created a subtle undercurrent that kept the show from glamorizing bad guys. As a viewer you might think, I could be friends with Tony Soprano. But some of those stories seemed too specific to not have some basis in fact.
WINTER: What you said will always be the reality of these guys. You think you can be friends with Tony, and yeah, you can, until you owe him money or until he wants something, or you piss him off in some way, or if he thinks you owe him something. That’s just that predatory mentality of these guys. And yeah, in general, that landscaper story came from a friend of mine in Brooklyn who had a landscaping business for 10 years and he’s mowing a lawn along with his helper one day, and a guy comes up and goes, “What the f*ck are you doing?’ He’s like, “What do you mean? I’m mowing a lawn.” The guy says, “You can’t mow lawns here. This is my territory.” My friend says, “What the fuck are you talking about? I’ve been handling this neighborhood for 10 years.” “Well, not anymore.” Apparently, this guy had just gotten out of jail and it became a big issue and he had to go and meet some big mob guy. He ultimately ended up paying this other guy money, for the right to cut lawns in this particular neighborhood in Brooklyn. That was just the way it was. There was nothing he could do. Either you cannot cut any lawns, or you can pay us money, and that’s the reality of dealing with this world.
DEADLINE: Was your friend cutting certain lawns for free, like the landscaper in the episodes?
WINTER: Yeah, he was. He was cutting a lawn in Mill Basin, Brooklyn for free once a week, and that person will be nameless. That’s what he did, and there was just no choice. Yeah, it was, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to do this house every week as part of this.”
DEADLINE: You certainly conveyed how scary it could be in dealing with lawless men. Like when Christopher was in the Bada Bing strip club, talking about his newborn daughter and Paulie told him that someday, she would be on the pole here. Christopher gets high and drunk, and ends up in the home of the screenwriter who is an AA sponsor [Tim Daly]. When Christopher doesn’t hear what he wants to, he shoots the guy between the eyes. And is not held accountable.
WINTER: No, sh*t flows downhill and they are not accountable. Who are you going to call? The cops may or may not give a sh*t and you’re on your own. Very famously people have been threatened with not going to the cops, or people have been beaten up by mob guys in reality and then gone and testified on their behalf in court about what great guys they are. It’s obviously being terrorized, but that’s just the reality. It wasn’t that we set out to show this, but if you’re going to be truthful about how these stories organically unfold? Tony’s neighbor, who’s a degenerate gambler who wants to play cards with them? Eventually Tony’s going to end up taking the guy’s house, or car, or whatever it is. I forget who it was. There’s some mob guy whose deal was, if somebody owed him money…maybe we did this on the show… but it was like, until the money is paid, we’re enemies. And the minute the money’s paid it’s like OK, now we can be friends again. It’s that kind of attitude. It’s like as long as you owe me money, I’m going to keep coming at you and then once you pay it then OK, now we’re good.
DEADLINE: In another life, Tony Sirico was a street guy. How was he as a resource for saying, no, this is not how it would happen, and was it kind of awkward to ask him to delve back into that part of his life?
WINTER: Yeah, he didn’t have a lot to say. He was very complimentary of the writing. He occasionally would have a tweak, a suggestion. Like, ‘I don’t if I would say that or do this,’ but for the most part, I’d say 95 percent of everything he was good to do with whatever was in there, and yeah, a lot of it was funny. I remember him. Growing up in Brooklyn, I remember him as Junior Sirico, which was his name back then. Before he went by Tony, he was Junior Sirico and he was this scary mob guy from…I thought he was from Bay Ridge, I’m not sure exactly. He might’ve been from Bensonhurst, but everybody was aware of him in nightclubs and stuff, and then he was an actor, but he was the real deal. You’d see him in and around Sheepshead Bay, Bay Ridge, but yeah, he was…again, I think he lent an air of authenticity to what he was, as you say, really in that life, or an aspect of it, and it’s funny. David said this many times, and maybe he told you, but the first thing Tony Sirico said to him was, ‘hey, I’ll do whatever you want me to do on this show, but I won’t be a rat. Don’t make me a rat.’
DEADLINE: Tony talked about that.
WINTER: And David never did. Tony said, ‘I won’t say the words, I’m not going to do it,’ and he just felt so strongly about not being a rat. But it’s so funny, at one point I can remember an episode where he strangles an old lady, and it’s his mother’s friend. He needs money and he ends up bringing her down and strangling her. He came to me. He goes, “are you fucking kidding me? I’ve got to strangle an old lady?” I said, “you said you’d do anything,” and he goes, “Jesus Christ!” I said, “don’t worry, we’ll cast somebody who you’ll want to strangle. Don’t worry.”
DEADLINE: This was after he joined his mother and her friends for lunch, and one of them joked that the other kept money in her mattress. You expertly built tension between Paulie and the other lady.
It was funny. The actress who we got was really lovely but on set she and Tony were kind of sniping at each other, and he ended up having to strangle her. It ended up being funny because they were kidding about it, but it was great.
DEADLINE: It did underscore the absurdity of this lifestyle where a guy like this would basically…
WINTER: Yeah, and the desperation. I remember in Donnie Brasco, that these mob guys are breaking into parking meters to get money to pay off their boss. That’s their reality. There’s nothing that they won’t steal or do to get by. Yeah, if it comes down to strangling an old lady who took your mother’s Parker House muffins, then that’s what it has to be. That’s what it’s all about.
The Late Great Gandolfini
It is going on six years since James Gandolfini died at age 51, but his presence still hovers above The Sopranos and everyone who worked on the show. Most of the cast cannot bring themselves to watch the show, and a big reason is that it brings up memories of Gandolfini and all he did for them, and the sadness that he is not here anymore.
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 and everybody, because could see that it was a tiring thing. It was like we were sprinters and he’s running marathons.
DEADLINE: David Chase, you’ve said Gandolfini was the least self-protective actor you ever met.
CHASE: He would do anything. He wouldn’t like it and he’d complain, and he’d swear, and he’d call it sh*t, and call us vampires and everything else. But he would always do it.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest creative clash you ever had?
CHASE: We never did clash creatively. We clashed about the work environment sometimes, we clashed about dialogue sometimes, but he always wound up saying it.
DEADLINE: He didn’t really seem to like the fit of fame. He always seemed like a character actor who fell into stardom.
CHASE: That’s pretty accurate. I don’t think he expected to be Tony Soprano, I mean whatever that meant, that people were mentioning those two words all the time in editorials, and newspapers, and magazines. He was awfully good to people and really nice to the fans, but he was so nice to the fans that he would finally get fed up with and then react. You would read about he’d get pissed off at some guy at the airport or something like that. I think it was because he didn’t know how to push it away gently or deal with people and make it so that they weren’t upset. I used to wonder if what really bothered him was playing a bully because he is big. Now, he wasn’t always like that. His sport in high school was basketball, not football. He was apparently very good.
DEADLINE: His frame thickened over the years. Were there any marching orders to look a certain way when he returned from hiatus?
CHASE: He just came back heavier. Too much manicotti, that’s all. There was no manicotti orders and no telegrams from headquarters to say have another piece of pizza or another cannoli, nobody did that.
DEADLINE: There was a time where he was woefully underpaid compared to Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer or NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz, and he actually sued to get out of his contract. It delayed the start of shooting as I recall. He had a strong case: the networks paid better and HBO was still getting used to all this. Sopranos DVDs became booming business. He later gave money to those he inconvenienced. How did you feel about all this?
CHASE: It didn’t impact the show. Maybe on the people working on it, it probably did on the actors, it probably did have a negative impact. All I ever thought was, those people deserve whatever they get. They should get as much as they can. Jim Gandolfini should be paid a gazillion dollars, but HBO held steady on all that stuff.
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. To a large extent, a lot of us felt we did also. You have great actors who never find that great role, you never see their whole range, and the whole potential. The thing is about Jim was, it did come and he was always committed 100 percent.
He never took any scenes for granted, and he just gave a lot. He gave a lot in life, like with his work with veterans, with the soldiers, and going to Iraq, and his dedication to his co-workers and to the crew. And was also just a lot of fun. We became very good friends and we had a very good time working and we trusted each other, and we enjoyed working together. The other thing is, we all enjoyed achieving a level of success that we didn’t have before we got together. We had all been kicking around a long time with various degrees of success, and then we hit on something that really struck a nerve. We never took it for granted.
DEADLINE: Edie Falco, the scenes in the Sopranos’ household were so relatable, when times were good and when Tony and Carmela were in full combat mode. How long did it take to establish that chemistry between you and James Gandolfini?
FALCO: I don’t think that’s something you can plan for, or else everybody would have that. I don’t think any of us knew that he and I working together would be so satisfying. I mean who knows, but Jimmy and I were so similar. We were both middle-class kids from the Tri-State area, who never had any ideas about us being fabulous. We were just hard workers and from my vantage point, he seemed to be similar to me in that we weren’t big talkers. We showed up and just did it. I do much better in an environment like that. I’m not great at talking about stuff. I would always much rather just do it.
DEADLINE: That sets a tone. Why was the family dynamic so genuine?
FALCO: Well, he and I were also both Italian-American, so a lot of this stuff I think certainly for me, came from life. The Sunday dinner thing was something I grew up with. I knew what it felt like. A lot of the Italian family dynamic is something he and I had in our blood. I think the one word I can use to describe working with Jim was…easy. It was just easy. There was not a lot of thinking that went on, there was a lot of feeling.
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: They were both character actors, and that was the thing about Jimmy especially. 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, that I’m-something-special attitude, that creates tension on the set.
It was a very relaxed set most of the time unless something heavy was going on. We were all a little uptight the day we had to say goodbye to Vinny Pastore. Not only were we killing him on the show. You really only see the people you work with and we were going to miss him.
As for Jimmy, he set the tone. I didn’t know how I would be received on that set by experienced actors because this was my first time. 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 and was 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.
We had a lot of good talks because he was basically coming from movies to TV, and it was a shock to the system. You’re going from two script pages a day to seven, and most of it was on him. So he basically quit the show like every day, and then we’d go to a bar after that and I’d talk him into coming back the next day. It was a lot of pressure and I said to him, “Look, I don’t care what else you want to do in your life, if you want to movies, how many good movies are there and how many good movie scripts are going to come your way?” I said, “Are there more than one or two a year? No. So do them in the off season. You just hang in there and handle this crazy gig, it’s going to pay off.” I think he did a movie or two every single off season but he was just very humble about it. He was like, “I can’t do this.” You just had to keep telling him how great he was doing. And he was just so great.
DEADLINE: Robert Iler, you and Jamie-Lynn Sigler grew up on that show, right before our eyes. You both had many intense scenes with him. Describe the relationship.
ROBERT ILER: When you’re working with people like that, you’re nervous before you get in the ring, but when you’re in the ring with them, it’s either you are going to fight or you’re going to get knocked out. I definitely knew I wasn’t as good a fighter in that ring as they were, but I was determined not to get knocked out. And the writing is so good and you’re working with the greatest actors in the world, and when that ball starts rolling and James Gandolfini has his hand around your throat and he’s choking you against the wall, you’re not thinking, what choice should I make right here? I mean, it’s going down, man, you know? It’s like being attacked by a grizzly bear. You’re not weighing jellybeans on a scale pondering, what should I do? Sometimes you are just reacting in the moment, and he was just the best to do it with. And when you were doing something wrong, they had the best way of telling you that without making you feel stupid.
DEADLINE: How was your relationship when you weren’t acting?
ILER: He never, ever gave me advice about how to deal with sudden fame, because, I think, he was dealing with that and trying to figure it out for himself. He never came up to me and acted like he knew all the answers. But the story that sticks in my head is…a few years after we wrapped Sopranos, and I guess my manager didn’t want to anything because Jim didn’t want him to. But later he told me, “Just so you know, this guy would call me while you were shooting. He just wanted to know if you were all right. He wanted to know how much you were spending on rent. What your friends were like. He wanted to make sure that you were OK.”
Me and Jim grew really close, but he took the next step by going to my manager and making sure I was going to be OK 10 or 20 years down the road. He asked, he’s not living in a 20-thousand-dollar-a-month apartment, or blowing all his money on going out and partying? And he would call my manager and talk to him about it, and then he would tell him, ‘Hey, do me a favor. Please don’t tell Robert I asked about this stuff.” Jim had so much sh*t going on, and he would still do that and not for any other reason than that he cared. And he didn’t want me to know.
He was the best of the best, and I got to see two Jim Gandolfinis. One version when I was 12 to 17, and then from 18 on, when it became, here’s my friend Robert. There were always jokes about me being the kid, but at 18, 19 and 20, he made it possible for me to be one of the guys, and not, you know, just the kid.
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: He was very gentle with me. I remember him always trying to prepare me for where he was going to go in our scenes, and after a while he understood that I got it. I understood that…I’m not scared of you. I get this. We’re in this together. Whenever we would finish one of those intense scenes, which by the way I treasured because they were just so charged…like I remember specifically the scene where I sort of stand up to him and call him a mob boss and we really get in each other’s faces. There was this squeeze that he would give your hand, or your arm after, and it was like…you did it kid, or we did it, or thank you, or I’m proud of you. And you would walk out of the room on a high because you just had a master class with a master, and you connected, and he approved. It felt otherworldly, like catching lightning in a bottle, truly.
DEADLINE: He asked after Robert, likely to help make sure he didn’t become a cautionary tale where kids lose their childhoods, have trouble adjusting to adulthood, and have nothing to show for it because they overspent. Did he do that with you?
SIGLER: I’m not surprised to hear that, and it just warms my heart. He did it differently with me because I was a bit older. But I went through a lot of different personal struggles during the run of the show, and he was always respectful to not be intrusive but would make it known that he was there for you. I remember when I opened up to him about my [multiple sclerosis]. Way after the show wrapped, we had done an appearance and we just ended up the two of us in an hour-long conversation and he told me that he had donated money to a stem cell research fund, something specifically for MS, anonymously but in honor of me. It was just his way of feeling like he was trying to help me, and that’s just who he was.
I can remember one very special moment for me came during the first season. We would have our read-throughs in the writers office. It was this round conference table and Jim always sat at the end of it in this big leather chair. When we walked in to do our read-through for the college episode, he had me sit in his chair. He didn’t say it, but basically he was saying, “This is your episode, Jamie. This is a big one for you, I want you to feel special, and I want you to feel important, and that you can do this.” And that episode was so important and powerful, to see him literally murder somebody with his bare hands, and then go right back to his little girl and tour these colleges. And then to realize that an audience could still love and care about this person. It was so complicated, but it was what that show was all about.
LORRAINE BRACCO: With Melfi, Jimmy would often have two, three, four-page scenes. He would look at me with hatred, because he had so much. It was always at the end of the episode that we would shoot the Melfi scenes, because it gave him the two weeks or whatever to learn those lines. And he would ask them to have enough film in the camera that he wouldn’t have to break it.
DEADLINE: What does that mean? He would keep going until he found it?
BRACCO: No, he would know it by heart, but he didn’t want to have sound people saying cut, or we need to reload the film. He wanted to make sure that there was enough film, enough sound that he could go through this three, four, however many pages monologue in one continuous take. I often thought that those scenes could have been the show’s weak link, and I’d say to myself that I’d talked myself into this and, what the f*ck was I thinking? But then later on, people would tell me they’d study psychiatry and they used clips of Jimmy and I as a learning tool. I’m very proud of that.
I’m going to read you something that I love because I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s on a card that came with flowers. “Dear Dr. Melfi, heard you got nominated for another award. So how come I ain’t fixed yet? Your favorite patient, Anthony Cucumber Soprano.” He sent it with a big thing of flowers because I won this, you know, analytical psychiatry blah, blah, blah award. I mean, it was a big thing. And so, we never thought he was really fixed. But I saved that note and it’s up in my bedroom. The recognition was important to us. I just loved the fact that people really got it and they said a lot more men went to therapy, that there was a hike in the numbers of men who searched therapy out as a solution, instead of drinking and drugging and whoring and that whole thing. And here I thought it would be the weak link, like, who’s going to sit and watch two people talk?
AIDA TURTURRO: I still talk to him. We were sister and brother and we understood this was how families fought. Edie and I said we would watch the show again and we had to stop. But one of the scenes I remember so well was when Janice goes to anger management. I love that, because Tony couldn’t stand that she was working on herself and was calmer and holding in the anger and you knew he was going to push her buttons. And by the end, she is screaming, “I’ll kill you!” That came from a place we all have seen, even if families don’t get to the point of screaming. But we’ve all seen people at dinner tables and Christmas when they’re attacking each other, or undermining or passive aggressively starting fights, and you walk away thinking, well, that’s just the family holiday.
DEADLINE: Tony pierced Janice’s serenity by bringing up Harpo, the son who wouldn’t speak to her.
TURTURRO: He had to egg her on. He was like, “I’m not going to let you be nice. You’re full of sh*t. You’re just like me and you’re going down with me.” You see people and you think they’re the nicest and then they do something extreme and you think, I never thought this person would betray me. People are complex and that’s why the show worked so well. James, Edie, Nancy Marchand, the kids, all the actors did such a wonderful job playing that. It stemmed from the top, Jimmy. He worked so hard.
He was so giving. He didn’t want to be the hero. He appreciated what he got, how much he had and always, always shared it. He shared it with the crew. With gifts. Once, he got some money and we didn’t get some money and he gave some of his own money to some of us. There was a lot Jimmy did like that. I mean, he had this tough side just like everybody. He needed it. Do you know how hard it is to do a show like that and be the lead with all those emotions and the thoughts and the little things? It was crazy but he worked his ass off.
DEADLINE: Terry Winter, how was James Gandolfini when you wrote particularly challenging scenes or ones that made him look unglamorous?
WINTER: Jim was fearless and completely devoid of vanity, so you could write anything for him. There wasn’t ever a nanosecond where you thought, is he going to want to do this? Is he going to be able to do this emotionally? There were scenes where, over four pages, he went from joyful to rage to tears within the span of three minutes. You’d stand on set watching him do this, and it was astounding, how easy he made it look, when it was anything but. Those therapy scenes. The guy worked three or four days in a row where he wouldn’t leave the set until two in the morning. He would come back for another eight, 10 hours later with four pages to do of therapy, these really detailed monologues that we would write for him.
Sometimes, you would literally sit there watching him and you’d get tears in your eyes standing five feet away, watching this actor perform these lines. He was the type of person who would come on set and you could goof around with him, and laugh, and talk, and he was always funny and gracious. I’ve been on sets that were like a church, where everybody is so quiet and nobody dares to laugh. That set was just a free for all, of ball-breaking and laughter. People would bring their families. You’d see so many guests sitting at the monitor that the director sometimes wouldn’t even have a chair. Jim in particular would say hello to everybody. He’d be gracious, fooling around, then he would sit down and do a four-page therapy scene that would have everybody in tears and just make it look like that’s just his day job, punching in and leaving. But I know it took quite a toll on him emotionally and physically, living in the skin of that character. I mean, that’s an ugly place to be for 83 episodes.
DEADLINE: How did that manifest itself?
WINTER: I think he was very self-deprecating. When he would get a line wrong, he would be critical of himself. He would never ever lash out at others. Occasionally he would break the writer’s balls. He’d say, “Does it have it to be this way?” But mostly he would go, “God f*cking damn it, fucking idiot,” talking about himself because he didn’t get it. He would get into a dark place, he’d get into a dark mood where he would be Tony for a long time. Yeah, it’s was just hard on him.
What Did That Ending Mean?
DEADLINE: Your abrupt series ender remains the most controversial and most debated conclusion of a beloved TV series. But it has seemed over the years that you felt wounded by the criticism that followed.
CHASE: About the ending, was I wounded? I don’t think I’d say I was wounded. I couldn’t believe it made such an impact, good or bad. I saw it was the ending of a TV show and I never expected that to happen, just like we never expected the show to become such a success. I wouldn’t describe myself as wounded, but…I don’t know what word you’d use. I got tired of all that complaining, very quickly. And it’s still going on. I can’t believe it.
DEADLINE: Can I give you my interpretation? I took it that we’d seen the world through the eyes of Tony Soprano, and when he was killed and those eyes closed, that abrupt fade to black was appropriate. After spending six seasons with Tony and Carmela and watching those kids grow up, I didn’t want to see him murdered at that table, and be left with the image of his family splattered with blood. If that’s what you meant.
CHASE: I’ve never heard anybody say that before, explain it that way. But you are right in that I never thought you would want to see that. People said, he gets his just desserts, and I thought, you’ve watched how many years of this thing to see a guy get his just desserts?
DEADLINE: In front of his family.
CHASE: In front of his family. Look, I don’t know. It’s for people to decide for themselves. I had another scene that was going to be Tony’s death, that we were going to do. That was two years or three years before we came up with the other one. So, there was a death scene. Tony drives back into the Lincoln tunnel, he goes for a meeting with Phil Leotardo, and he’s killed. I don’t think you were going to see the death, but you were going to know that he was dead.
DEADLINE: And then the show kept going…
CHASE: Whenever the show went off the air, we were going to use that, and then I just changed my mind. I decided to do this instead. I thought it was more interesting.
TERENCE WINTER: I love the ending. I remember David pitched it to me and Matt Weiner maybe a year earlier. He comes in one day and he said I think I have the ending. He pitched the scene and said, “We’re just going to cut to black.” Matt and I both thought that was great. Then months later he comes in and said, “I just heard ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ‘ on the radio on the way in. There’s something about that song. I don’t know. I think it’s great and…I don’t know. I was just thinking that maybe that will factor in somehow.” And ultimately that of course became the ending.
DEADLINE: Your own read on the ending?
WINTER: My interpretation was that, when you’re Tony Soprano, even going out for ice cream with your family is fraught with paranoia. He’s sown a life of murder, mayhem and treachery. And everybody who walks in, a guy in a Member’s Only jacket…this could be the guy, or that could be the guy. You’re always looking over your shoulder and at some point, whether it happened that night or not, when you live that life, one day, somebody’s going to walk out of a men’s room and that’s it for you. As we know famously from gangsters, they always say there’s only two ways to get out of this: one’s jail, the other’s dead. So maybe it happened that night, and maybe it didn’t. It really didn’t matter. At some point, something bad’s going to happen to this guy and maybe it was that night. And maybe not.
MATTHEW WEINER: It’s indisputable to me that this was the correct choice for the show. The funniest part was there was a bet in Las Vegas about whether Tony would live or die. And of my friends were like, what should I put my money on? And all I’m thinking is, what’s going to happen in Las Vegas when they see the ending? Who are they going to pay? They looked at me like I had inside information, and I tried to look really virtuous, but inside I was thinking, this [Vegas bet] is not going to work out well.
DEADLINE: You say it was the perfect kind of ending. What did it mean to you?
WEINER: I’m going to say what it meant to me as a viewer because I’m not speaking for David. To me, it was very clear that there were three, maybe four possibilities for the story to end. Life goes on the way it is. Tony gets arrested and goes to jail. Tony is shot and killed by an enemy. And I guess the last one is that Tony just dies, but most of his life goes on. I felt that what that ending does is it just allows us to leave that story that goes on without us. The brilliance of it for me is, it doesn’t feel unresolved any more than life does. You know it’s one of those possibilities. They’re all there in the scene. The family is there, the domestic life. There is definitely an assassin there, and definitely someone who looks like a cop there. So all of that is there, and what you don’t do is ruin the rest of the series for me. I didn’t find it confusing or upsetting at all. I think the thing that was really hard for people was David’s device of just cutting to black. The way that that effect happens, I think that people really thought there was something wrong with their TV. That part of it was hard for them, and that, I understand. I don’t know, it makes me laugh, and to me it was like, Elvis has left the building.
DEADLINE: So rather than some crime scene image of carnage, you are left with your own memory?
WEINER: Of always being tested, of wanting to please David, of having so much freedom. Of living in Manhattan and surviving my trial period as an actor, when a lot of people called it Survivor, Long Island City. Once I had the job, there was a dinner in Little Italy, and I met the cast.
And Dominic Chianese was singing. He’s an incredible singer. Michael Imperioli was there, and Jim was there, obviously, and it was on Mulberry Street, OK? This was like walking onto a movie set for me. Then I am walking down the street with them as they were going to a bar after dinner. There was just something about them being in that environment on Mulberry Street at night. Jim Gandolfini was big or bigger than he appeared on TV. Steve Van Zandt. Edie Falco. Just seeing those actors, walking shoulder to shoulder. I felt like I was walking with The Beatles or something. It was just weird. It was just amazing.
DEADLINE: The cast was just as confused as everybody else, even some who were in that famous scene.
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: To be honest, when we shot it…I was not there the day that Edie, Jim, and Robert were there. My whole parallel parking, walking to the restroom was a different day. And that was actually the very last thing he shot, me running across the street and going into Holsten’s. [The script] never said, cut to black or anything like that. I think it was just a fade of Tony, or whatever it was, and I remember going to the HBO offices and they screened the finale for a few of us. When it cut to black like that, we all turned around, looking at the projector, thinking something happened. And then when the credits started a couple of seconds later, we all just started laughing. Because I think we understood, ‘oh my God, people are either going to be pissed, or they are going to love this.’ But bravo, of course, David made this the best ending ever. In my opinion, I interpreted it…and again this is no insider information because none of us were told anything. I feel like the last scene, the way it was edited, with all these potential threats on Tony, our family, and then seemingly him clocking it all but then just living their life and having their moments and waiting for Meadow. This is who they are, whether his life ended in that moment or a month later, or 10 years later, I think it’s inevitable that he was going to die. But this is the life they chose, and this is how they have to live their life. The family has to be completely in the moment and understand that this could happen, but try to not look at it.
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: Just by coincidence, I was scheduled to go on a live radio broadcast the next morning and it was one of those national morning shows that get broadcast all over the place. So, I heard from all over the country that next day. It was completely hostile at first, until I started to saying to people, ‘Okay, so let’s hear your ending. Okay. So what? You wanted Tony to die? You wanted the wife to die? What, the kids to die? What do you want?’ Well, no, no, no, no. And then slowly, after about an hour or so of this, everybody started to say, wait a minute, we don’t have a better ending. Nobody seemed to have a better ending that they would chase. So, all of a sudden, the tide kind of turned towards, wow, maybe that was genius after all. I watched the attitude about it change right before my eyes.
DEADLINE: I once asked Quentin Tarantino what was in the stolen briefcase that Sam Jackson and John Travolta retrieved in Pulp Fiction, the one that gave off an amber glow when they opened it. He told me, “it could be a soul, it could be anything you want it to be. Whatever you think it is, that’s what it is.” There is artistry to being ambiguous and letting you kind of figure it out yourself, especially when it comes at such an important moment.
VAN ZANDT: Yeah. You’ve got to be very secure to do that. And you just got to be a couple of steps ahead of everybody else. Okay. Now they’re going to come at you and you say, okay, let’s hear your ending. You got a better ending, let’s hear it. I’m still waiting for somebody to tell me that better ending.
I think the idea was, the camera came in and visited this family and this world, and then the camera just kept moving, you know what I mean? You can imagine whatever you want to imagine, but basically it was never going to be a completely comfortable, anxiety-free life. I think that was the message that David left. In this life, you always got to look over your shoulder. Simple as that, and it’s never going to be whether you die today or tomorrow. You may not die today, you may not die tomorrow, but it’s possible, and that’s the unfortunate part of that life and those who choose it. We were always trying to take the romance out of that whole lifestyle. There’s really nothing romantic in that show, whatsoever. If you wanted to be a mob guy after watching that show, there’s something wrong with you.
Last Word, David Chase
DEADLINE: Seinfeld is considered the greatest sitcom, and Jerry Seinfeld never made another, but his partner Larry David did. The Sopranos is routinely called the best dramatic series in TV history. You told me you’re wondering if the critics will be waiting with hammers when you do The Sopranos prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark. What kind of weight on your shoulders was this show, even as you move finally forward with this film and expand The Sopranos canon?
CHASE: If that was a weight, I’d bear it every time. It was never a weight, to me. I got to do whatever I wanted. In order to make the work be what you hope it will be, you need things, and [HBO] never stinted. They never did. I used to hear complaints secondhand from our line producer Ilene Landress, but when they complained, she’d say, “Well, talk to David.” And they never stood in my way. If anything, I enjoyed the job too much. Of course, the money was good. I can’t deny that, but I enjoyed the job. Even at that time, I said to myself and to my friends, I said I have the best job in show business. The showrunner of that show is really just a challenge and a pleasure, and I worked with such talented people, including the other writers. I had a ball. I was having such a good time doing that work. You’re not supposed to have a good time at work.
DEADLINE: If there was something that was an unpleasant surprise?
CHASE: It surprised me how careful you had to be with the press. I really didn’t understand what, at least, show business journalists are like. I might not have been so open. I probably would have hired a publicist earlier than I did even though HBO was great at that. I thought [these interviews] were informational and didn’t realize they were trying to pin you to the wall, you know?
DEADLINE: Maybe not everyone.