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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 5)

Cocksucker turns his back on the boss, Tony says.

That I couldn't believe, Silvio replies.

He's lucky I didn't put a bullet through his fucking head, Tony responds.

This could only be a scene from The Sopranos, the Mafia show that has become the highest-rated series in HBO history. Viewers across the country eagerly await the new season, which starts March 4, of the hit Mob opera about a troubled, Prozac-popping, middle-aged scion of organized crime whose relatives and friends give him a potentially terminal case of heartburn.

What new problems will be faced by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who possesses at least a partly good soul and who must cope daily with his two dysfunctional families -- the one at home and the one at work? Will Tony's loving and unhappy wife, Carmela (the Emmy-winning Edie Falco), continue to accept a relationship in which her husband is steadily unfaithful? How will their teenage son, A. J. (Robert Iler), deal with his knowledge of the way his father earns a living? And what new battles for independence will rage with their daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), now that she is off to college?

Will Tony's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), continue to treat her dangerous client? Will his Machiavellian Mob antagonist, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), come up with another plot to have his nephew blown away? And what of Tony's mother, Livia, who once agreed to have her precious son rubbed out? Now that Nancy Marchand, the actress who portrayed her, has died, how will the writers deal with her character?

And then there is Tony's artistic and brutal nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), himself an eager killer; and Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), Tony's loyal sidekicks. Will the 2001 season include anything new about Big Pussy, who, after last season's finale, now sleeps with the fishes? Or Tony's flower-child sister, Janice, now returned to the West Coast, and her crazy and evil boyfriend, Richie, who was done away with by a bullet from the hand of his beloved? And what new characters will be added to the delightfully vicious stew; a pot brimming with violence, nudity and verbal expletives that would be deleted anywhere on television except premium cable? Only the writers know the answers, and they're not talking.

Filmed in a former bakery in Queens, New York, The Sopranos has been praised by critics as an ambitious artistic success, the best show of this year and many others, and as an addictive audience-pleaser, the rare show viewers actually talk and get excited about. It is a series and a concept unique to the mind of David Chase, its creator and executive producer, a television veteran who first tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it to the broadcast networks before it found a home at HBO.

I was looking for the notion that life is so complex now that even a wiseguy needs help sorting it out, Chase once told The New York Times. Plus, the Mob as we know it has taken some pretty heavy hits from law enforcement.

That neurotic wiseguy is compellingly portrayed by Gandolfini, who, before the character of Tony Soprano was born, was a journeyman 37-year-old actor with a bunch of largely insignificant movie credits -- although he had been noticed in supporting roles in True Romance and Get Shorty.

But then, he was surprisingly cast as Tony Soprano, and his critically lauded portrayal of the complex, sensitive, violent and confused Mafia boss has brought him the instant fame he says he never thought would be his. Last September, Gandolfini won the Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a dramatic television series.

Caryn James, the chief television critic for The New York Times and one of the show's earliest supporters, gives Gandolfini a large measure of credit for the program's popularity, although she also cites the consistency of the writing and the depth of the other characters.

I think a big part of the appeal is that Tony is the good guy and the bad guy rolled into one, James says. Even when he's killing people or doing things that are vile, Gandolfini creates such understanding and sympathy for this character that you root for him and you understand him. He's really the focus of the show. Without him it wouldn't work nearly as well.

Gandolfini has a balding pate and a very noticeable belly protruding above his belt, neither of which has hindered his rise to stardom or his standing as a sex symbol. Fame and praise do not sit easily on the burly Gandolfini frame. Even after two successful seasons and great anticipation for the third, he is still uncomfortable in the spotlight, and especially doing interviews. He once turned down a profile in The New York Times, saying that it would have been out of character for him to grant one. (I do a job, he once told People magazine. A carpenter does a job. He doesn't have to do an interview about the job he did.)

It's just that I'm not very good at interviews, he says at the start of a brief one he has agreed to on the show's set.

The actor's uncharacteristic modesty continues in his assessment of the show's success -- he places it squarely on the shoulders of producer Chase, and specifically cites the ensemble acting. There's a lot of heart, a lot of poetry, in the writing, Gandolfini says. What audiences like in the show is that there is a great deal of imperfection in the characters. In a lot of television shows, the characters end up making the right choice, they end up doing the right thing. I heard David Chase say once that people don't lie to themselves on network television. The characters in ?The Sopranos' lie to themselves all the time.

In real life there are a lot of gray areas, Gandolfini adds, and audiences see that in our characters. They identify with that and they laugh at it. In a way it's like watching Jackie Gleason make mistakes and lie to himself on The Honeymooners.' It's funny, but in a lot of ways it's also tragic.

What keeps Tony together, Gandolfini says, is his family. Tony is very much in love with his wife, and he's very much in love with his daughter, and he's very much in love with his son. It keeps him grounded. Without his family, he would be a complete disaster.

What splits Tony apart is the terrible clash between his public and private lives. There's this scene in the first season, he says, in episode 5 titled College. Tony is sitting at Bowdoin College in Maine, the patient and caring father waiting for Meadow to come out from an interview. But he has just killed a former mobster who turned rat and testified for the government. And on the wall is a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne, the college's most notable alumnus: no man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.

And Tony sees the quote, Gandolfini says, and he is sitting there realizing the awful price he pays for everything he does.

Tony, Gandolfini says, is a reasonably sensitive guy. He feels for other people and he tries to do the right thing -- and when it goes wrong he gets very angry. And then he gets very violent. The violence is an outlet for his feelings -- doing something violent makes him feel better.

The violence, Gandolfini says, is also a result of Tony's famously dysfunctional childhood family and of Livia, his larger-than-life mother, the mother to end all mothers, who despite his best intentions can find nothing right with him. It's very evident that Tony grew up in a family that did not have a lot of love, did not show any love or caring, Gandolfini says. The only way he can react much of the time is with violence or nastiness, because that's what he saw in his parents when he was a child. Carmela tries to teach him otherwise.

Gandolfini's own childhood is something he does not like to talk about. But only because, it's really quite boring. He was born on September 18, 1961, in Westwood, New Jersey, and grew up in northern New Jersey as one of three children -- he has two sisters -- in what he calls a nice Italian family.

My father was born in Italy, he says. My mother grew up in Italy. My mother was going to be a doctor in Italy, but World War II stopped her education, so when she came over here she ended up being a head lunch lady in a Catholic high school. My father worked as head custodian at a Catholic high school in New Jersey. I went to public school. My parents worked hard. They sacrificed a great deal to put three kids through college. And they've seen their three children become successful. They started from nothing when they came over here, so they have to be very proud.

He graduated from Rutgers University, studied at the Actors Studio and made his film debut in 1992 in A Stranger Among Us, a mystery starring Melanie Griffith. Before taking up acting full time he worked as a bouncer, a bartender and a nightclub manager in Manhattan and as a truck driver for a company called Gimme Seltzer.

Gandolfini found his early days of acting lessons frightening -- and he got angry that he was frightened, so he stuck with it. A friend took me to an acting class, he recalls. I was about 25. It actually made me very nervous to be there, and that really pissed me off. I said, ?Well, I want to figure this out, so I'll stay here.'

He made his Broadway debut in 1992 opposite Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in A Streetcar Named Desire. His other film credits include Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in 1995, in which he played a Navy lieutenant; 8mm with Nicolas Cage in 1999, in which he portrayed a small-time pornographer; and the forthcoming comedy The Mexican with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, in which he portrays a hit man. But his name was not on anyone's lips until after he met David Chase.

I had read the script for the ['Sopranos'] pilot, the one about the ducks in Tony's swimming pool, and I thought it was wonderful, Gandolfini says. I went through a few auditions, and then I met David one morning for breakfast. He wanted to have a meeting at 7:30 in the morning. He could have picked any other time, but he picked 7:30. And I said to myself that I'm not going to like this guy. But I met him, and we shared a few good laughs. We talked about our similar backgrounds, growing up in New Jersey with a bunch of Italians -- our mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts. And it all went from there.

In the first season, Gandolfini says, Chase worked with him frequently on the details and nuances of portraying Tony. But that doesn't happen as much anymore, he says. I think he'll let my instincts go. Unless he sees something he doesn't like. In the beginning there was much more of a learning process. Now the character is pretty well defined.

Gandolfini prefers not to discuss his personal life, or his family. But it has been written that he married Marcy Wudarski in 1999 and that they have an apartment in Manhattan. However, he does reveal that he is looking for a home in western New Jersey. But that's about as far as he'll go.

He also admits to a fondness for cigars, but again he declines to be specific. I very much love cigars, he says. I went to Spain with a friend about eight or nine years ago, and that's where I discovered them. I hadn't really smoked them much before, but I found them incredibly relaxing. Now I'll smoke maybe three or four a week. I'll sit in the same place and not move for 45 minutes. It's a ritual I really enjoy.

Gandolfini doesn't have a favorite brand, size or shape, he says. I like smoking a million different things. Sometimes I'll want something a little stronger, sometimes not. I'm not much of an expert, but I'll know immediately if I like something or if I don't like it. I'm still at the stage where I'm experimenting with many different cigars, and I haven't picked one that I consistently like.

One thing he really does like, he says, is his success -- despite the obvious drawbacks. All it means is that basically, I'm more tired, Gandolfini says. But other than that it's pretty much a dream come true. It's been a blessing. David has been very kind, and HBO has been very kind. Sometimes I'm not the easiest guy to get along with, and they've been very patient. It's been wonderful financially, and it's helped in every way. Artistically, I think I have a lot more choices, and whenever the series ends I hope that I'll be able to go on and make some smart choices.

Even walking down the street, or dining at a restaurant, hasn't been difficult, he says. I don't find it much of a problem in New York City. It does take a little more energy to go places because you're not going to be able to just slip into a restaurant. But I've found that if you're responsive and kind with just a word or two, people are very nice. Very seldom are they incredibly intrusive. They rarely stay there or drive you crazy. Mostly they just want to say hello real quickly, and if you say hello back it's fine.

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?


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