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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 4)

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.

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