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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 6)

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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