EXCLUSIVE: It was 20 years ago today that hour-long television was forever changed, starting with the visage of a cigar-smoking Tony Soprano commuting from New York to New Jersey to the pulsing beat of the theme song, “Woke Up This Morning.” David Chase’s The Sopranos became an instant critical sensation that legitimized HBO’s creative ambitions and made possible all the outsized creatively ambitious programming to follow, including Game of Thrones. It brought wisecracking, brutal and existentially tortured mobsters into homes every Sunday night. The show was a dream to cover for journalists like me. I remember getting a call at my Long Island home from James Gandolfini, indignant I had revealed his pay raise in detail and eager to know who leaked it; there was the time HBO brass discovered Gandolfini had filed a lawsuit to exit over a lingering pay dispute when I called them; and the breakage of such anecdotal bits as the time that, after he leaked Sopranos plot details, Daily News gossip Mitchell Fink found his column crammed up the bum of a homeless woman in a shocking scene.
Offered a pasta lunch over the holidays at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan with Chase to discuss the show and his prequel film, with follow-ups with many of his writers and cast, well, talk about an offer you can’t refuse. The result is something of an oral history trip down memory lane which will be served up in multiple installments on Deadline because the reminiscences were too many to fit in a single post.
“Promise me you’ll include all the best stuff, since it’s online,” said Matthew Weiner, who worked four years on the show before creating Mad Men. “No one can get enough of these stories, even 20 years later.” As was the case with The Sopranos, Chase is the lead voice here, and everyone else follows.
Powered By An Unhappy Mother And Therapy
DEADLINE: Many sons I know processed their own dysfunctional upbringing with the help of early Bruce Springsteen music that was fueled by fiery clashes with a bitter, uncommunicative father who suffered from depression. Had he grown up happy, you wonder would Springsteen have been a regular Joe who played weddings on weekends. David, how much of the credit for hatching another iconic New Jersey product do you owe to an unhappy childhood and the mother who inspired Livia Soprano?
DAVID CHASE: Quite a bit, but I will say this. When the show first started, there was an article done by Alex Witchel in the New York Times, who rode around in the car with me back to Newark. I oversold the whole depression thing because I wasn’t really that familiar with the press, and wanted to impress on people what it was about, why Tony was depressed. I oversold how unhappy I had been as a child. I would like to get rid of that whole depression thing. I’ve gone on Wikipedia and I see it says there, he had problems with his youth and a lot of depression. I’m sorry to be known like that.
DEADLINE: What part of that label is misconstrued?
CHASE: The way you phrased it, the influence of my unhappy childhood. Part of it was very humorous, even if I didn’t think so at the time. But it was funny, and I think it informed the comedy of the show a lot.
DEADLINE: But you’ve said the flashback line was real, where Livia Soprano tells her young son Tony she is going to stick a fork through his eye?
CHASE: That’s a direct quote. It was a snow day in New Jersey and I was 13 or 14 and bored. I had nothing to do, and I wanted one anyway, so I kept saying to my mother, I want one of those little Hammond Organs that you can play. Why can’t I get one of those for Christmas or something? Finally, she came running after me and she shut me up about that organ by telling me, I could take your eye out with this knife. I now watch My Brilliant Friend and all that stuff is in there. The mother talking to the child, I’ll rip your shitty tongue right out of your mouth, I’ll push you down the stairs. The kid being thrown out the window. That was all the kind of stuff that happened and was said by my parents. I think it was cultural.
DEADLINE: How did your parents react to seeing your childhood play out onscreen through Tony Soprano?
CHASE: They were both dead by that time, for quite a while. The idea for the show about the gangster and his mother came a long time before you ever saw the show. My wife suggested it actually. Only afterward did I start thinking, am I going to be haunted for this?
DEADLINE: In his Broadway show, Springsteen was far more appreciative of his deceased father, and it seemed like he felt badly for putting the old man on display as the focus of his ire, and realizing his father had his own depression issues.
CHASE: I had a realization one day that I’d had a happy childhood, basically. All my physical needs were met. I lived in this apartment complex in Clifton, New Jersey. I roamed free all over that place. Nobody ever told me what to do outside of the house. There were a lot of woods in New Jersey then, and I used to go there all the time. My father, especially, was very generous with money. I remember going to the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan first went and played rock and roll. It was ’65 I think, and I was working at a golf course that summer. My father came in and slipped me a fifty. And said, “don’t tell your mother.” The house was unhappy. My mother was an unhappy woman, my father was an unhappy guy and the two of them weren’t happy with each other, I think, although they were very close.
DEADLINE: Depression is hereditary and maybe they were depressed even if they didn’t know how to characterize it back then. You suffered from it and Springsteen has been very open about the toll his own bouts of depression took on him for many years.
CHASE: I’m sure my mother was.
DEADLINE: What parts of childhood left you with panic attacks and feeling like you yourself needed to see a therapist?
CHASE: I’ll tell you exactly what it was. My sister-in-law. I was in my early 30s. My sister-in-law died of a brain aneurysm and we went back to New Jersey for the funeral. And instead of focusing on my wife and her sadness, all I could talk about was my sadness and how depressed I felt. When I realized what I was doing, that I was talking more about me than someone who had just lost her favorite sister, I said to myself, it’s time for you to stop this. You need to get rid of it. I came to that myself. I’ve been in therapy on and off, since my 30s. Earlier I tried it when I was a kid and didn’t get much out of it.
DEADLINE: How did all this angst find its way into The Sopranos pilot script? Was your protagonist always a mobster?
CHASE: I’m not sure I considered anything else. The way this came about was my wife always said to me, you’ve got to write something about your mother, she’s hysterical.
CHASE: Funny. Everybody in my family felt that way. When I used to go back to Jersey from California, all my cousins and my aunts would tell me, “Oh she said this” and “Oh my God, you should’ve been there the day she did this.”
CHASE: I remember once, we were going to my cousin Diana’s and she took a half gallon of milk and said, I’m going to take this down to Diana before it spoils. We drive there and she’s getting out of the car and she dropped it and the milk went all over the place. It was already spoiled. And she knew it was. She was just going to unload this stuff on her.
One time myself, my wife, my daughter, my in-laws and my mother went to a seafood restaurant in New Jersey. We were standing there, waiting in line, and the corridor that led to the dining room had these glass panels, aquariums with fish in them. It was an octopus and clams, that stuff. My mother was just standing there quietly, and she just said, “There’s another thing I hate.” She seldom laughed when she said these things, but I think I got my sense of humor from her. We both laugh at subjects that aren’t that funny, or are kind of grey.
DEADLINE: You infused the show with a pop culture awareness, especially of classic mob movies like The Godfather. Which films from that genre imprinted most strongly on you?
CHASE: The Public Enemy was a big influence, because it scared me. The last scene, when they take Tommy home and he’s wrapped in a blanket and his head is all wrapped like a mummy in bandages. I’ve been afraid of bandages and ambulances, stuff like that, since I was little. I lived above a doctor’s office and my mother was always full of medical misinformation. She had me down there every other day. So, [James Cagney] was standing there like that and then he toppled forward, and it just scared the hell out of me, and I never forgot it. I was about 8 years old when I saw it on Million Dollar Movie. Even before that moment in the movie I thought, that’s my father’s era. Those cars and those houses. My father was as old as this guy when that stuff was going on. I thought, that’s what life was like back then. He had a line in that movie…he had a partner named Matt, and this might be the first time I remember recognizing a line of dialogue and thinking, wow, that’s a creation of something. I think it was Jean Harlow that says to him, are you alone? He gestures to Edward Woods and says, “I’m always alone when I’m with Matt.” Even at that age, I got it. And I wanted to do that.
DEADLINE: Didn’t The Sopranos start as a movie, intended to liberate your from a long career on TV shows?
CHASE: I did see it only as possible as a feature film, but I didn’t write it that way. I pitched it to some people, but I never [set it up]. My agent at the time, who’s still my agent…
DEADLINE: Peter Benedek, who has a cameo in the second to last episode?
CHASE: He told me in that meeting, when I was going to go over to UTA, forget it. Crime comedies are over. I put it away until three years later when I went to Brillstein-Grey and they said they wanted to do The Godfather for television. I said, I don’t want to do that.
CHASE: Because it already existed. Guys with big coats and hats. I wanted to do something completely different, and I wanted to amplify the roles of women in it.
DEADLINE: In The Godfather and Goodfellas, women held their emotions mostly in check and many suffered in silence.
CHASE: What appealed to me was the family aspect of it. Not the mob family, the family aspect of it, as in the kids and the wife. As a series, Fox was the first to respond but when it came time to make it, they didn’t. A female executive at Fox called me up, this was the moment they were announcing what they were picking up. I said, well, when are we going to start? Because the meeting that I had for it was like a dream meeting. They were crazy for it. She said well, now that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. She said, from a human angle, she loved the pilot, but she didn’t think they were going to do it, which turned out to be the truth.
DEADLINE: Did they give you a reason? You were a proven TV writer, after all…
CHASE: No, but I imagine it was too rough for network TV. Though I didn’t use the word fu*k once in the pilot script I wrote. Maybe damn and shit a couple of times. My feeling? 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. 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.
DEADLINE: If you had done it at Fox would you have been able to set James Gandolfini as your lead?
CHASE: No, absolutely not. I recall that Anthony LaPaglia wanted to do it and they said they would do it with him, but by that time I was over the whole thing at Fox and I didn’t want to do it there.
Gathering The Mob
DEADLINE: You saw Steven Van Zandt do a humorous Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction of The Rascals. He had never acted, but you liked him for Tony.
CHASE: I thought about that, yeah. It would have been a different show. It would be more of a comedy.
DEADLINE: Is it often you will do that, find somebody who hasn’t acted before and put them in a big role?
CHASE: No. But I had a reaction to him before that. I used to buy Springsteen records, back when they had LPs, where you’d play the record on the headphones and you looked on the back and read a little. He always was there, looking like an Italian punk. He reminded me of Al Pacino at that time. That’s what attracted me to him. And on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing, he was just very funny and adept at comedy.
DEADLINE: Were you thinking it would be better to do The Sopranos as a comedy?
CHASE: No, I just saw him read the part and I laughed at it, and I thought, well this is interesting. You watch Jim Gandolfini in the role and obviously it was the same words, the same funny dialogue, but it was also brutal. I brought them in front of HBO, and another really good actor, Michael Rispoli, who got really close (and played ailing Jersey boss Jackie Aprile).
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: I read for him and he thought I might be good for that role, but in the end HBO felt very uncomfortable with somebody who’s never acted before, taking the lead. So, [Chase] said to me, “Listen, any other part you would like, please tell me,” and I said to him, “You know what, I’m starting to feel a little bit guilty about this because I hate to take an actor’s job. These guys work their whole lives, they go to classes, they do off Broadway, and here comes a rock and roll guitar player off the street.” So, he says, “All right. Well, in that case I’ll write you in a part that doesn’t exist.” And that’s what happened. Ironically, after I read for David I had to go to the West Coast to read for HBO. I’m on my way into the room and Jimmy Gandolfini is sitting there and I remember saying to the casting director Sheila Jaffe, “That guy outside. 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.”
DEADLINE: How were you even available to do a TV series?
VAN ZANDT: I left the E Street Band in 1982 and then Bruce put the rest of the band on hiatus by the end of that decade. So I had been gone 18 years by then. I was just literally walking my dog. I wasn’t doing anything. I was completely out of work. I had been very, very political in my music career and got a lot of publicity with the South Africa thing. We helped bring down the South African government. Feeding people in Africa is one thing, but bringing down governments is a bit too scary. It was intimidating to the record companies, so suddenly I was persona non grata in the music business. They were avoiding me and I had no work and was wondering what I was going to do with my life when I got the call, out of the blue.
DEADLINE: Gandolfini now seems the only logical choice. David, describe his audition process and how he convinced you.
CHASE: We were doing it in a little studio above a dance studio on 79th Street, and he came in and he was all huffing and puffing. 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. And then there was a lot of negotiating and convincing, not on my part, but on the casting people’s part.
DEADLINE: So they believed in him?
CHASE: We all believed in him, but did we believe he would come back? He promised to return the following Friday, and then we get word that his mother is very ill, or had died. I swear I heard this. His mother died several years ago, but I swear that’s what he told me, or somebody did. And the reason I’m hesitating is because he didn’t seem to me to be the kind of guy who would use his dead mother as an excuse, but I swear I heard that.
DEADLINE: So you set another date?
CHASE: And he didn’t come in that day either. By then, people were having to convince me to read him. I could see where he was going [that first time], and I thought he’d be very good. Finally, somehow or other he came to my house in Los Angeles and we taped it and that was the end of that.
DEADLINE: How long into his audition did it take to convince you he was Tony Soprano?
CHASE: It took a couple of months to get to that audition, but I was convinced, immediately. Immediately.
DEADLINE: What qualities jumped out at you?
CHASE: I don’t know the answer to that. I know 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.
DEADLINE: Steven, you probably had a handle on how you would have played Tony before you took the role of his consigliere, Silvio Dante. What did you think when you saw Gandolfini in the role you almost got?
VAN ZANDT: Oh, it was wonderful. 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. With the smaller guys who end up in charge, it’s a whole different kind of personality and it requires a different dynamic that has to do with manipulation and how you go about getting people to be loyal to you, all the various very complicated dynamics that go into being a leader. I felt it was going to be a lot easier the bigger, imposing, kind of intimidating and threatening which Jimmy was, naturally. He was completely psychotic in True Romance, 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. You want him intimidating and charming simultaneously. That’s the perfect combination. You don’t have to be as verbally threatening when you are that imposing figure.
CHASE: Who? Tony Vallelonga?
DEADLINE: He played Carmine Lupertazzi, the big New York boss.
CHASE: Oh, Tony Lip.
DEADLINE: Who is played by Viggo Mortensen in the Oscar contender Green Book. How did he never pitch his road trip through the South story to you back in the day?
CHASE: I think his son did. When I realized what Green Book was about, I said, who did I talk to about this? Somebody I was involved in the show with. Maybe Terry Winter. I think they pitched Green Book and remember I turned it down.
CHASE: I was pitched things like that all the time. Every party, somebody would say, I know a guy in Newark who’s a big shot. I was pitched that stuff all the time. I’m not sure about that, of that encounter, but I’m almost positive that I was pitched Green Book. I didn’t know it was called Green Book or what it was about even. It’s about my father’s adventures, or something like that, he said.
TERENCE WINTER: I used to talk to Nick about writing and he said he had all these great stories about his dad, but I don’t recall him specifically pitching me Green Book, and certainly, if I did turn it down, I’m a bigger idiot than I already thought I was, but I hope I didn’t because, man, what a great idea and what a great story and so well done. I’m thrilled for Nick, and for his dad. I mean, Tony was a great guy, funny as hell, and I used to love sitting and talking to him. He had all these great stories about working at the Copa in the ‘60s at the height of that era, and all the people he met. Later on in life, he became the doorman at The Copa. One of the best moments with him, I remember, came when the character Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. had a stroke and we were shooting it at a golf course and he was in the middle of eating an egg salad sandwich in the scene. And Jim Gandolfini said to him, is it OK if I put my finger in your mouth and pluck out the egg salad? He said “Yeah, do whatever you want.” Jim did it, and I remember watching that being filmed and going oh my God, it was so disgusting. Anybody eating egg salad, let alone an old man having a stroke, is just hideous, but it was just great that Jim just had that idea. That’s what I would do in real life if this guy’s choking on the egg salad, and it just looked so great. It just added such a level of reality to that, but that was just an impromptu thing on the spot.
DEADLINE: Scorsese’s Goodfellas had to be a touchstone film for you. Was it deliberate we found so many actors from that movie in The Sopranos?
CHASE: That was a great movie, but I didn’t cast them because of that. It was not an homage. They were the best who tried out. Was there really that many?
DEADLINE: The Internet says 27, over the run of series.
CHASE: I didn’t think it was that many. That might’ve been the case. But they were just the best.
DEADLINE: In Goodfellas, Michael Imperioli’s Spider character had a couple memorable scenes as did Frank Vincent, the made guy murdered by Joe Pesci’s character. But the biggest name from that film to come to The Sopranos was Lorraine Bracco. You saw her as Carmela?
CHASE: We probably had a conversation about her for Carmela, but I remember what I said, which was, we can’t do that because she played that role in Goodfellas. In Lorraine’s version of reality, she’s the one who said I don’t want to do the same thing, I want to play Dr. Melfi. I don’t remember that happening.
LORRAINE BRACCO: I heard it was a Mafia story and I said I just don’t want to do that, but Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken were my friends and said no, no, you got to read it. I didn’t know David Chase and Jimmy had not been cast. 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.” I’m a different person, and I want to do different things. Sheila got on the phone and begged me to read it and I did. I called her back and I said, this is terrific, I have not read a script like this in a very long time. But I don’t want to play Carmela, I wanted to play Melfi, and their response was, but it’s called The Sopranos, it’s not called Dr. Melfi. So with the agent and manager screaming at me, “Don’t say you don’t want to play Carmela Soprano,” I met with David Chase. I kind of fell in love with him. There’s something about him that I very much connected with. I loved the psychiatrist relationship, the intimacy between Melfi and Tony. We’ve never seen it before. I loved that I could play an educated Italian woman because I’ve never seen that before. I don’t think I was on his Melfi list but we talked about therapy. I’ve been in therapy, he’d been in therapy. We opened up in dialogue of who we were today, and I opened him up to thinking that I could play Melfi. I remember saying, you don’t want to be compared to Goodfellas and Karen Hill, and I don’t want that either.
DEADLINE: After Goodfellas, your agents were sent a lot of mob scripts?
BRACCO: Oh, yes. I said don’t even give them to me, I don’t want to even read them. Not interested.
DEADLINE: When Chase locked you in, how long did it take to work out the complicated relationship with Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano? Did you know him?
BRACCO: No, but I had seen Jimmy in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin, and I remember during intermission going through the playbill to find the name of that actor because I loved what he was doing. He was charismatic. He had energy. He was like a big bear. He took over. So when Sheila said there’s a couple of actors up for this part and we want this guy Jim Gandolfini, I said, oh, I like him. Jim wasn’t a star. He and Edie Falco had been great in parts but they weren’t household names.
DEADLINE: The Carmela role went to Edie Falco. She was playing an entirely different character for HBO on the Tom Fontana series Oz. What about her personified the frustrations and materialism that perhaps you found in researching real mob wives?
CHASE: I didn’t know any mob wives. It wasn’t that she embodied materialism, or anger, or anything else. She played all that, but she is just a great actress and we were pretty hard up. It was one of the last roles we cast, and when she came in it was just there. It came off the page like a rocket.
EDIE FALCO: When I got a phone call for an audition, I’d heard about it from my actor friends. But it was called The Sopranos, so I thought it was about singers, I assumed I wouldn’t get called, and didn’t really think much of it. 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. My hair has been blonde for a thousand years, so I don’t think it was anything physical, and I don’t know what made David decide I was what he was looking for. It does make it easier to go in and do an audition when there are no expectations of actually walking away with the job.
CHRIS ALBRECHT: Edie was the last role we cast because we couldn’t find that actress for Carmela. She was in a supporting role on our series Oz at the time and Carolyn Strauss said to me, would you let Edie Falco do it? I thought, we can do Oz without her character, but we can’t do Sopranos without finding Carmela.
FALCO: I don’t ever have expectations. I’d been wrong so many times that I stopped guessing. I really thought the dialogue here was very realistic and easy to perform, but that wasn’t necessarily an indication of something lasting for a long time. I had done a pilot for Fargo, not the Fargo that’s there now, but a different one. I thought it was great, and the Coen Brothers were involved. And nobody was interested.
DEADLINE: David, which of the actors you auditioned most surprised you?
CHASE: We must have read 100 women before Nancy Marchand came in. The others for the most part would do their crazy Italian momma thing, and it wasn’t right. This was based on my mother, and so I knew what it should sound like and act like. Nancy was probably the 98th actress to come in. She sat down and did it and I thought, Christ, that’s my mother; she is channeling my mother. My wife, when she saw it, said the same thing. Incredible, that’s just like your mother. All my relatives said that.
DEADLINE: What in her audition made it that way?
CHASE: The complaining, the endless complaining. Livia used to say, “Oh poor you.” That’s the kind of thing my mother would say. In fact, my mother used to say that. Or, “I’m not going to drive when it rains,” and, “psychiatry is just a racket for the Jews.” Those are all my mother.
DEADLINE: Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler, you grew up before our eyes. Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you auditioned and got the roles of Meadow and AJ Soprano?
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: I grew up on Long Island doing community theater and I had done a couple of summer stock runs and a national tour. Musical theater was all I had focused on and never thought about film or television. It was at a time when there weren’t many roles for teenagers in musicals so I was going to go away to sleep-away camp with all my other friends finally, and take the summer off. This audition for The Sopranos came along and because of the title I assumed it was musical. I figured maybe I’ve got a shot because I can pass for Italian. My mother is Cuban, and my father is Greek Romanian Sephardic Jew. Nobody seems to ever know what nationality I am. I went for it without putting any pressure on myself because I was so focused on going to sleep-away camp. That might have been the trick.
I didn’t have a script, only sides, and one was a scene with Meadow, talking with Carmela about wanting to go on a ski trip with her friend Hunter. I was well-versed in arguing with my mother about wanting to do things that she wasn’t going to let me do, that it wasn’t a far stretch. When I went for my callback with David Chase I remember saying, you guys need to hear me sing. I don’t see an accompanist, so I can sing acapella for you if you want. I remember him kind of looking confused and saying that’s not necessary for this. I tried to cover quickly and said OK, never mind. I didn’t realize it wasn’t a show about singers. But David actually did let Meadow sing in the show.
ROBERT ILER: I was 12 years old. And what I remember is that I was probably the only person who thought it was going to be a huge success, only because it was my first TV show. When I got the job, it was like, hey, you got a TV show! My family was like, you’re going to be famous! And then I got on set with all the actors. I remember Tony Sirico saying, “Listen, kid, you know, as an actor you do these all the time. Let’s have a great time because, nothing’s going to come of it.” And suddenly, all my dreams were shot down. I went back and told my family, nothing’s going to come of this. And then it blew up to be the biggest thing ever.
DEADLINE: Tony Sirico, how did you come to be Tony Soprano’s lieutenant Paulie Walnuts. Did you really read for the Uncle Junior Soprano role?
TONY SIRICO: David Chase didn’t know me the first time we met, but I had the greased back hair, and he puts this hat on my head, and said, “Be an old man.” So I said, [his voice goes high and frail], “These kids today!” That’s what I gave him and he loved it. He calls me back the following week to come do it again. I do the same routine, same voice, without the hat. Third time, I get a call and I’m feeling something good was happening. They took me downstairs where they film these auditions. It’s me, Dominic Chianese, Frank Vincent, all doing the same guy, Junior Soprano. When it came to my audition, all I said was, “These kids today!” I gave I all I had, David nodded and said thank you. I walked out, went home and said to myself, well there was a lotta cursing in the kitchen. Junior was 75, an old man. I enjoyed the fact they knew my name, but not that first time when a funny hat was put on my head to play a 75 year old man. “These kids today.” I got a phone call, it’s David Chase and he says, “I got a good character for you. You’re gonna play a guy named Paulie Walnuts.” Bada Bing. That’s how it happened. I say, who is he? David says, “You’ll like him.” And boy, let me tell you, I loved him. I am still Paulie. I can’t go home no more. I am Paulie, till I pass.
DEADLINE: It’s lore that you said you’d do anything but play a rat. This was a fictional TV series. Why was that important?
SIRICO: I come from the streets. I been in the Army, I been everywhere. I wouldn’t play a rat if you put a gun to my head and if you did put a gun to my head, you better empty it. I did a Baretta episode with Robert Blake, this is at the beginning of my career. I’m playing a bad guy, and he’s got me on the floor, with his foot putting pressure on my arm. Baretta wants the name of a guy who shot this girl. “I’ll ask you one more time, who killed that girl?” And I tell him. This was in California and when I came back to New York, I was so proud and my kid was there and I said, Richie, what did you think? He said, “You ratted, dad, you ratted.” Never again.
DEADLINE: Michael Imperioli, you had a small but unforgettable role in Goodfellas as Spider, the hapless bartender shot in the foot and then murdered by Joe Pesci’s character. How helpful was that toward winning the role of Christopher Moltisanti?
MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: It got my foot in the door in a big way. It was the first movie I was in that people actually saw. Spike Lee saw a screening of it before it was released and me and a bunch of people wound up being in Jungle Fever. In the audition, David looked kind of bored. He kept giving me direction, which often I take as a bad sign in an audition because it means I’m not kind of giving them what they want or are interested in seeing, but I’ll tell you the truth: I didn’t really care one way or the other if I got the part because there weren’t really any series on cable and 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 when I started seeing these scripts in the first season that I realized the depths and complexity. So, it was like it wasn’t like someone was saying this is going to be the greatest show in television history and you’re going to have a huge part on it so you may as well do a good job. I was impressed by the cast, though. We were flown to LA and it was me, Lorraine, Edie, Jim, Stevie Van Zandt, and Michael Rispoli, the three guys reading for Tony. I don’t think they were testing anyone else for Christopher, and I don’t know who else auditioned in New York.
I really wasn’t sure that it would go. Dramatic series on cable was uncharted territory. We shot the pilot in the summer and then around Christmas time, me, Vinnie Pastore, and Sirico worked on a movie called Witness to the Mob about Sammy Gravano. And right before the holiday break, we got picked up.
DEADLINE: Drea de Matteo, how about you?
DREA DE MATTEO: If you’ve seen the pilot, I was the hostess in the restaurant and don’t look anything like the character developed later on. I don’t have the thick accent, the hair or the wardrobe. The show wasn’t anything yet when I auditioned, but I knew it was a beautiful script because my mom’s a playwriting teacher. So I thought it was too good for television and would never have legs. But I auditioned for the Russian girlfriend role, for Michael’s girlfriend and others on the periphery. And got none of them. David said I wasn’t Italian enough but that he liked me and would I be willing to just play the hostess in the restaurant? I wasn’t even an actor in this world and said I’ll do anything you want me to do. No one knew who James Gandolfini was yet, but I was so nervous to work with Lorraine Bracco, who was famous. I couldn’t even get my two lines out where I turn them down at the restaurant. I messed up and thought if this ever goes to series, they’ll never call me back.
DEADLINE: What changed?
DE MATTEO: I’m in Queens at my grandmother’s house, and she was cooking a big Italian dinner. They called and said, can you rush over to the stage for an audition? I said, no, I’m all the way in Queens, and they said, so is the stage. They said it was for The Sopranos, which you auditioned for before. I say, I can’t memorize my lines on this short notice. Please, I can’t, I’m too nervous. Just come over here, they said. It’ll be fine. My grandmother packed up our chicken cutlet Parmesans into gyros. We went and sat outside of Silvercup Studios, me and my parents, and I knew now it was an Italian vibe thing. So my mom took my nameplate in diamonds on a rope chain out of my safe and said, wear this. And make sure you turn your one line, which was “Ow,” into 10 syllables, like the neighborhood girls do. I said, OK, mommy. I turned it into five syllables, and probably had tomato sauce on my shirt. I had my nameplate diamond on. But it was a day player role and we figured if they were hiring a regular, they would go for Debi Mazar, Marisa Tomei or Mira Sorvino, people that were established in playing that role, that accent, that whole world. I got it. I became Christopher’s date, then his girlfriend and then fiancée.
David would come around, and talk to me, and ask me questions, tell me that he really was enjoying my little tiny bit of work on the show. And every script, there was more dialogue. I was sitting in my little honey wagon, still a day player so my room was a toilet with a pillow over it, a 2×2 room. Episode 12, I was on every other page. We didn’t have cell phones back then. So I ran to a pay phone, and I called my mother, and I said, you’re not going to fu*king believe this. My mom had been reading the scripts and was floored by them, being a writer herself. Next season I went from day player to regular. I could tell by the way he wrote my character that he loved me and allowed me to bring that whole unexpected Adriana character to life.
DEADLINE: Aida Turturro, Janice Soprano really took hold after the first season, but she was as ruthless as her brother, and resented not having his power because she was a woman.
AIDA TURTURRO: Jimmy and I met in 1992. We had done A Streetcar Named Desire. We were Steve and Eunice Hubbell, so we knew we immediately had a connection. He called and said you know, there’s this show…but the role was later in the first season. I went to the party after the premiere and I was like, this is such an exciting thing and I would love to be part of it. I remember going in to the audition and how many people were up for it…some of my favorite people, like Marcia Gay Harden. I was just the biggest fan of hers and said to myself, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, what can you do? Janice and Tony grew up together, and they come from this family. The mother is fu*ked up, and so that’s all you know. In some ways, I think Tony was less of a psychopath. There was so much more love in Tony even though yes, he does his business because that is what he grew up with. I think Janice was more ill because she had this jealousy. She wanted to have power. She always thinks she’s doing the right thing. She’s very egotistical. It was always all about her. But I never saw her as a bad person. This was her mind. But she was a Soprano and grew up in that life, too. With the mother and all the dynamics of, mommy loves you more and I deserve this. She loved her brother, but at the same time, she was a narcissist and she was never wrong. You get to work with Nancy Marchand, who was one of my favorite actresses, and Edie. It was all so easy.
What, No F*cking Pilot Pickup?
DEADLINE: David, why did it take so long for HBO to pick up the pilot?
CHASE: Beats me. Maybe it was because they’d never seen anything like it before, 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. I know they tested it and it didn’t test well. And it tested worse as you went west.
DEADLINE: Did you get to the point you considered moving on?
CHASE: What I was thinking was, if it didn’t get bought as a series that would be great for me. Because I could go on to my first love, which is movies. I just didn’t want to do any more TV. My agent said, just settle down and it’ll be all right. My plan was to maybe get another $500,000, add another 20 minutes to it and sell it as a feature. I don’t know whether they would’ve done that, and I didn’t get far with that. But when it was bought, I said to my agent, well, I’ve got terrible news today. They bought the show.
CAROLYN STRAUSS (former HBO Entertainment president): We all knew it was good, but at the time there was a real debate about having as the lead a guy who is a stone criminal, who would kill somebody. You had a lot of those guys in Oz, but a lot of the people who took you through that story were not those guys. Now, there are a lot of heroes who do bad things, lead characters who are complex people. But then, there weren’t any of those people. Money may have been a factor in the conversation, but I don’t remember that.
BRACCO: I was waiting for a commitment from HBO and was getting other offers and while they had a hold on me, at a certain point I needed to know what the hell was going on. I call up David Chase and I go, what’s the story? They had to make a decision in the next five or six weeks, but I have kids, I got a mortgage, I got stuff. I have to figure out my life here. David said, “I’m going to send you the pilot and I guess the best thing you could do is watch it, and then let’s talk.”
DEADLINE: Your reaction?
BRACCO: I was screaming with delight. Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve seen in five years, there’s not a movie out there that can compare with it, blah, blah, blah. I called David and I said what can I do? He said, “Call Chris Albrecht.” I said David, I never called an executive at a studio, I don’t know how to do that. He said, just call him and tell him what you think. I get Chris Albrecht’s number. I didn’t even think he even knew who I was. 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?
DEADLINE: What’d he say?
BRACCO: Too expensive. I said I lived in France for 10 years and I know the guys from Canal Plus. Can I help? He says, “I already sold it to them.” So I just kept saying, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. Everyone is fantastic. I said, I might be the weak link in it, because who wants to watch two people sit in a chair that don’t move and just talk. But it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
ALBRECHT: I don’t recall the Canal Plus thing. I don’t recall the movie thing. I’m not disputing what David says, but I don’t have any memory of any of that stuff. One of the big decisions was who would direct it. Brad Grey made a play, and I think Kevin Riley did too, that David should. He came in to give us his vision and it was clear we were never going to find anybody who saw this show better in their mind than David.
Jeff Bewkes, who was CEO of HBO at the time I was head of original programming, came to my house to watch the pilot. After, he said, “It’s good, but can he make them all this good?” I said, “I think this guy’s the real deal and he’s got a real vision for this. It can get better.” When David handed me the script he had rewritten from his Fox version he said, “I think there might be too much therapist in it.” We read it and thought, it’s the therapist that gives the whole thing such an interesting point of view.
And while we were contemplating doing it, I was great friends with Billy Crystal, a former client of mine. We were on the phone and I said, “what are you doing?” He said, “I’m really excited about this movie script we just handed in that I co-wrote with Peter Tolan.” I go, what’s it about? He says, “I play a psychiatrist for a Mafia don.” I said, “no, come on, you’re kidding me. I mean, seriously, what’s the movie about?” I thought he knew we had this show and was just teasing me, but it was exactly the same idea at exactly the same time. One was a comedy, and one a drama. But there was something in the ether about all this.
DEADLINE: How much pause did that give you?
ALBRECHT: I knew it was for De Niro, so it certainly shook me up a bit. Having been in this business for a long time, it seems like ideas travel almost in waves. I felt on one hand, well, this is a little weird, but on the other, it’s probably a good idea then. We wanted to invest in our original programming and here was a show that felt unique, high quality and different than anything that was on television. It wasn’t easy but by then we’d had some practice with Oz and Sex and the City. It wasn’t easy, but we greenlit the show.
DEADLINE: Was the delay in green lighting it all about the financial commitment of a series filming mostly in New York and New Jersey?
ALBRECHT: The cost was a fraction of what it would’ve cost to do that show today. It was expensive for us because we’d never done anything like that at the time, but relatively speaking, it was a really effectively produced show and the things that made it a challenge were also the things that made it right for HBO. Flawed protagonist who underneath was…maybe not a good guy, but certainly a man that had good qualities. When people asked what are you working on, I said, “we got this show about a guy who has just inherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring that into modern day. He’s trying to get out from under an overbearing mother. He’s married. He’s got two teenage kids. He’s having an affair. He starts to see a shrink because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. He’s about to turn 40. And the only difference between him and everybody I know is, he’s the don of New Jersey.” I think there were a lot of relatable things in that character and things people deal with, and then there was the larger-than-life size thing that he’s a Mafia guy. I thought people could relate to his problems and wish they could deal with theirs the way he did.
CHASE: It was a good day [when the greenlight happened]. I started to think, this is going to be good. Watching those actors work, I started thinking, this is going to be good. They were so good.
DEADLINE: You had developed a distaste for episodic TV by this time. Whether it was on Kolchak, or Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, or I’ll Fly Away, what parts of writing traditional TV most frustrated you?
CHASE: Meetings with the networks were torture. I don’t know how they did it, but all of them had this sensor, where they could take the best thing within a show and say, let’s not do that. It would never fail. We’d say, we’ve got this and that. I think they’ll let us go with this, and maybe that. And then you’d get there, and they’d say no…the thing with the blind dog, I don’t think we should do that. We’d say, it’s our favorite part, it’s the whole show. They didn’t care. Tom Fontana said it best back then. He said a meeting with HBO is like a meeting in Paris and a meeting with the networks is like a meeting in Albuquerque. I don’t know if it’s the same over at HBO, but it was then.
DEADLINE: The show launched with the most effusive critical praise ever seen. What seam did you hit?
CHASE: I think America was ready for it. I think they needed it. It was time for TV to grow up a little bit, but the seam that I found was…it was a show about the East Coast mob, but it was also about the family, as in his wife, son and daughter.
DEADLINE: You were given exceptional creative freedom. What was the biggest clash you had with the network that first season?
CHASE: Not many. They didn’t like the title, we had that argument, and Chris was very shocked by episode five, which was College.
DEADLINE: That was the episode where Tony brought daughter Meadow to visit campuses, and he spotted a former mob associate-turned-prosecution witness and went into witness protection. He juggled college visits with murder.
CHASE: He said, this is the first time Tony murders anybody. You’ve created one of the most dynamic characters in the last 20 years, and you’re going to poison the audience against him with that murder? I said to him, not trying to be a wise guy, I said, “well let’s just skip that episode. Don’t air it.” And he went nuts. He went crazy and angry. What are you talking about, the thing cost…and I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy.
ALBRECHT: Yeah, that was the toughest episode in the first season, certainly. When we read the first script, I think we felt, once he does this, he’s irredeemable. The guy was a rat, but he had done the right thing by turning in a Mafia guy and had moved on and was trying to live his life. David, I said, the audience is going to hate [Tony]. David said, but if Tony Soprano doesn’t kill that guy, then Tony Soprano’s full of shit, and then the whole show is full of shit. I thought, OK, well, that makes sense. David made some brilliant adjustments where, when the rat, the guy who was in witness protection, recognized it was Tony, he tried to have Tony offed. So he wasn’t a saint. It made him a killer, as well. When that episode went on the air, it signaled to the audience, to the critics, to everybody. OK, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
CHASE: We came up with this Band-Aid that is not terrible, but which I still regret. That the guy he was trying to kill was also selling dope to high school kids. So he wasn’t only a squealer, he was still bad. It felt like bullshit to me. I tried to explain that to Chris. I said, if he doesn’t kill this guy, he’s no good. In this, world, he’s got to kill him.
DEADLINE: Was that a constant struggle, to have Tony do bad things but not become unredeemble to the audaience?
CHASE: I never thought about that consciously. How do we keep them on his side? No.
DEADLINE: There was a fine line. After Joe Pantoliano’s Ralph Cifaretto character humiliated and beat to death his young pregnant girlfriend who was a stripper at the Bada Bing, I recall thinking, I can’t wait for this character to die.
CHASE: Well, Tony was smarter than that. Tony wouldn’t have done that for his own self-preservation. I’m going to die for murdering some stripper? Not me.
STRAUSS: There was that anxiety of the bad guy as your leading man. Would he be able to come from back from strangling another man to death? Lots of conversations, but at the end of the day what Chris and I both felt was, David’s the guy who has to live or die with this show. He’s the one who has to make it work, and he said this is how it had to be. And he was right. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that everybody had to be likeable. We tried not to be slaves to conventional wisdom, but still, the residue remained. It took a while before we were able to exhale and realize people will still watch.
What we ultimately learned was, the characters needed to be compelling, and complex, and to feel authentic. And for David, killing that guy and us seeing it was very complex, compelling and truly authentic. David was very strong in his belief that you can’t just show this guy as an affable family man. He was a real killer too and everybody needed to feel 360 degrees of Tony and not just some cuddly side of him.
The only other tough conversation I remember was about the rape scene with Melfi and how much you wanted to see and how much you didn’t. That wasn’t as much of an internal debate. The guys on the show did it right. You watched and it was a really difficult thing to see and it should be. You want to turn away, it was violent and awful to watch. To make it easier for people to ingest would not have been the right thing to do. The pushback wasn’t internal but came after it went on. People said it was gratuitous, but I thought it was the opposite. It had to be horrible. You should have to sit with it. It is bad. As opposed to mentioning it, but there were a couple different ways of looking at that.
IMPERIOLI: It was really the reviews that made us. When the show went on the air, after a couple of weeks the reviews were so over the top that there was even that hyperbolic Saturday Night Live skit, about the reviews, not the show. I think those reviews being so out of control, that forced the public to watch it.
VAN ZANDT: I’ll tell you the truth, when the show first hit I had been a rock star by then for 20 years, and within three weeks of that show being on, all people talked about was the Sopranos. The power of TV was amazing, you never saw anything like it, and I was pretty unrecognizable in the show. I looked pretty different. And everybody on the streets was stopping me about Sopranos. It was like, rock star, what rock star? Who cares?
I think it was the very first party we had, whatever, premiere party, we had a section. I said make sure the section ropes off so that the actors can relax and Jimmy was like, “No, no. We don’t want that. I want to be with the people.” I say, “Jimmy, you don’t understand. I’m not saying this out of some elitist asshole rock and roll star thing. I’m telling you what’s going to happen here, OK. I’d seen what happened with celebrity, after being in and out of it my whole life. You’re going to want a little piece of mind so you can relax, have a drink with your girlfriend or with your wife, with your friends, have a little conversation and not have people constantly on you like one big meet and greet, take your pictures and do autographs. Believe me.” So we had the roped-off section and at first he’s out there with the people and they jumped all over him. Eventually he came to me and he said, “OK, I get it now.” It’s just a reality. You’ve got to have a little bit of separation and it’s not because you have an attitude about it. It’s just you’ve got to live. You’ve got to live a little bit.
SIRICO: They loved us. I’m part of the USO and I volunteered and so did Jimmy. We got on this plane heading for Iraq, to meet the soldiers. While we were there, the pilot seen me and said, come sit in the front. We sat down and there was a woman co-pilot. This was a big airplane, a C-130. Suddenly she says, “Let Paulie fly it.” I took a shift at the wheel and I am flying and let me tell you, you got to be strong to hold this plane in place. It was gigantic. Jimmy was standing behind me and all I did was turn my head to say, look, Jimmy, I’m flying the plane. And in that time, it dropped 300 feet, like that. The pilot says “It’s alright, Paulie,” and the co-pilot took over. I’m laughing now, but it was spooky then, let me tell you.
CHASE: We still thought it was the end. After the first season, we thought we’re done, they won’t pick it up. I don’t know why we thought that. I remember Edie Falco most definitely thought that, and Jim too. Oh, I know why, because we were having too much fun. It was too much fun and we thought that’s not going to be allowed.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Good Things Can Happen When Great Writing Rules The World