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The Sopranos: Mob Rule

The wiseguys of HBO's "The Sopranos" take a shot at another season of the award-winning show.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

(continued from page 1)

Gandolfini, like many actors, is hesitant to talk about how he goes about getting ready for each episode and each scene. It's an intensely personal and very private technique, he says. But a visitor to the set one morning noticed that just before each take of that restaurant scene with Van Zandt, Gandolfini made a fist, tensed his muscles and banged his hand on the table three times, very hard and very noisily. Was that a way in which the actor prepared?

Sometimes when we do so much work each day, you just have to find a way to concentrate on every scene and think about exactly what you're doing, he says. And sometimes a small amount of pain will wake you up.

Tony Sirico, who portrays Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano's no-nonsense enforcer, woke up to the pain. As a youth, because of various crimes and misdemeanors, including several nightclub stickups, Sirico spent a total of five years taking part in what Tony Soprano once phrased as the penal experience.

I was a pretty tough kid, says Sirico, now in his late 50s, who grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. I was born in the Midwood section, on Coney Island Avenue. Woody Allen lived right around the corner from me, at Avenue K and East 14th Street. But I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of Mob-type people. I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.

And, Sirico says, It was a miracle that I didn't wind up like them. God was good to me. He gave me a brain. I found it late in life, but I found it.

It was something that happened behind bars, he says, that changed his life. I had a long talk with myself, he says. A real long talk. One day an acting group came into the 'college' I was in at the time. The group was called the Theater of the Forgotten. They were a bunch of ex-cons who came back into the place to entertain the guys. I saw them, and right there and then I knew what I wanted to do. It just hit me. I said, 'I can do that.' And when I got out I called someone who had been a friend of mine for many years, Richie Castellano, who had played Fat Clemenza in The Godfather. I told Richie I wanted to be an actor, and a couple of weeks later he took me by the hand and put me in a movie called Crazy Joe, about the Mobster Joey Gallo. That was close to 29 years ago, and I've been an actor ever since.

Sirico says that in portraying Paulie Walnuts -- whose nickname may or may not come from the hijacking of a truck that was supposed to contain electronic equipment but was filled instead with walnuts -- I reach back into my memory and give him a little from one guy in the neighborhood and a little bit from another.

Paulie, he says, is smart. He's tough. He's got a great sense of humor. But, of course, he's also a killer, so he's a great contradiction. He's got a heart, he's a real softie underneath, but you've got to go deep down to get at it. He's very principled in his business. You can count on him in a pinch. But he's very complicated. He can break a guy's head with a baseball bat on one corner, and on the next corner walk an old lady across the street.

In his long film career, Sirico has portrayed many mobsters. He has been in nearly 40 films, often as the bad guy, including The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, Mickey Blue Eyes and Miller's Crossing. He has also worked often for his Midwood neighbor, Woody Allen, in Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You and Celebrity. In real life, he shares a two-bedroom flat in Bensonhurst with his mother, Marie. He shops and cooks; he makes meatballs fit for a king -- crime or otherwise -- he says. He is divorced, and has a son and daughter, both in their 30s. And now, after nearly three decades on the screen, he is famous.

They didn't give me something for nothing, Sirico says. David Chase auditioned the hell out of me for this role, so I really earned it. I saw him four times. But I was consistent. I knew exactly who this guy was in my mind, and David liked the way I approached it, and here I am. I used to take buses and trains. I can't anymore. It's not that I don't love the celebrity. But not on a train. Once one person breaks the ice and starts to shake your hand, everybody comes.

For Steven Van Zandt, his first success came working for The Boss from New Jersey. Now, success has come again, working for the Boss from New Jersey -- but a very different Boss this time around.

Van Zandt first achieved fame as a guitarist with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Now he has become even more widely recognized as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano's right-hand man and the owner of the Bada Bing strip club.

His career as Silvio began after Chase saw him giving out an award on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame television special and knew right away that Van Zandt would be right for the show. (Van Zandt's face is the essence of New Jersey, Chase has said.)

David just called me out of the blue, Van Zandt says, and I auditioned. They wanted to see what I could do as an actor -- if I could put two sentences together.

Chase's instincts were correct -- and Silvio has been a crucial part of The Sopranos from the start.

I think Silvio and I have a couple of things in common, Van Zandt says. Both of us really don't relate to the modern world. I, as Steven Van Zandt, have never really left the '60s. I'm still there. I don't much care for the music of today, or the television, or the movies, or the books. Silvio is farther back. He's in the '40s and '50s. That's the culture, those are the times, he relates to.

Van Zandt, who as Silvio wears a shiny black bouffant wig with a large front wave, has said he feels as if the hair is doing the acting. The look is very important to me, he told People magazine. When I look in the mirror, I've got to see Silvio. But he brings much more to the role than a look in a mirror -- and what he brings includes a personal assessment of his character's character.

Unlike a lot of other characters, Silvio has no agenda except to protect the family, he says. That is his main motivation. He has some ambition, in terms of wanting to expand the family business into some entertainment areas. He's a little bit like Frank Costello, with a touch of Bugsy Siegel. He can be dangerous -- he does have a temper, but he rarely uses it within the business. He loses his cool in odd and I think humorous situations, like sporting events. That makes him a little bit unpredictable. But when it comes to the business, he tends to be very cool and professional.

A prime reason for the show's wide popularity, Van Zandt says, is that in an unusual way, people identify with Tony. These days everybody, like Tony, has two families -- one at home and one at work, he says. And balancing those two things is becoming increasingly difficult. No one has enough time for anything -- there never seems to be enough time or energy to devote to either one. I think we're all victims of time deficit disorder. So there's a bit of tension built in there, and it becomes a little more dramatic when your job is the Mob.

Despite his New Jersey face, Van Zandt was born in Boston. My mother remarried when I was seven, he says. My stepfather adopted me, which is how an Italian got a Dutch name.

He and his family moved to Middletown, New Jersey, in 1957, and as he grew up he became the musician he always wanted to be, achieving stardom with Springsteen and then abandoning it. Just as my music career was starting to take hold, I made the rather bizarre decision to throw it all away and start again, he says. I became obsessed with politics. I needed to talk about political issues.

He left the E Street Band and traveled the world, visiting troubled areas, recording albums (he called himself Little Steven) seeking to combine music with politics. In 1985, he wrote and produced Sun City, an anti-apartheid song about South Africa, which featured Bono of U2 and Lou Reed, among other artists. He has twice been honored by the United Nations for his humanitarian efforts. He recently reunited with Springsteen for a tour.

I never thought about acting, he says. And early on I developed a very odd habit. I only participate in work I feel is of really high quality. Consequently, I haven't worked very much in the last 20 years. So it was an extremely nice surprise when David Chase called.

 

Dominic Chianese portrays Uncle Junior, Tony Soprano's malevolently scheming relative and Mob compatriot. But the soft-spoken actor is nothing like the character he plays.

The 70-year-old Chianese has been performing since 1952, and for more than a decade before he was cast in the HBO hit, he ran a nonprofit organization in Westchester County, New York, that specialized in bringing theater and music to senior citizens in centers for the elderly.

I'd like to get back to that someday, Chianese says in his quiet way. The programs for the elderly, with dramatics and singing, are very helpful in maintaining a high level of activity for a healthy life, he says. The organization is called Center Stage for Seniors, and while I've had to slow it down for now, I still go out and meet seniors. I ran it all by myself, and what I'd like to do is get a board of directors going. I think my nonprofit idea will eventually take flower again.

For now, however, his focus is on one particular senior citizen -- Uncle Junior, and the difficult relationship he maintains with Tony.

I see Uncle Junior as kind of narrow-minded and very, very provincial, Chianese says. He's almost like a guy who has been transplanted from some farm in Europe. He's very close to the vest, very secretive.

Uncle Junior (aka Corrado Soprano) is very close to his nephew, Chianese says, because he taught Tony how to play baseball, even how to throw a ball -- he loves Tony, but he's also very jealous and competitive with him.

From this situation can come violence and tragedy, of course, but also much humor, he says. There's a lot of comedy in playing things this close to the vest, Chianese says. David Chase has a strong sense of irony, and it's in the writing. He's an Italian-American, too, and he sees the irony in relationships where you can say both 'I love you' and 'Go fuck yourself.' There's a kind of teasing involved. In Italian-American culture when people tease you it means they like you. It may not be only Italian-American, of course, but that's what I know. And then you put all this on the level of life and death, the way it is in 'The Sopranos.'

Chianese says he bases Uncle Junior on people he saw on the streets growing up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, in a largely Italian neighborhood. It was the way they speak, the way they walk, all that irony, he says. They were the guys who would pat you on the head and say, 'Kid, come here, go get me a cup of coffee.'

He doesn't have to act the language, he says -- I remember it from the neighborhood.

The Italian-American connection, he says, is a key factor in the show's success. Part of it, in addition to the great writing, is the chemistry between the actors, the actual love between the cast members. Love is a strong word to use, but it's true. There's a lot of common New York/New Jersey Italian-American memories. It's like when I used to run the nonprofit, I had a group from Yonkers that was all Jewish, and we sang Yiddish songs. They were the best group in the world because they all had similar qualities and they could share them.

Another ingredient, he says, is the fact that almost everybody in 'The Sopranos' cast was unknown. We're all so happy to be in a hit show, and that gave us a big boost.


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