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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

Tony Soprano and Silvio Dante sit at a table at Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant. Amid brightly lit round paper lanterns, hanging lamps and in front of a mural of the Bay of Naples, the duo discusses the questionable future of a colleague.

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?

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.

Chianese says he decided when he was six years old that he wanted to be an actor. But I kept it inside. When I was about 21, I asked my father if I could get off the bricklayers' bus one day to go to an audition. And I got the job.

Then, at age 30, he says, I had to make my mind up again. It was tough trying to act and trying to be a father, to have a family. That part didn't all work out at first. But in the end it all worked out. I have wonderful children -- Chianese lives in Manhattan and has four daughters, two sons and nine grandchildren -- and I'm friendly with my ex-wives. What more can a man want?

An alumnus of Brooklyn College, he began his professional theater career in 1952 Off Broadway in New York in Gilbert and Sullivan, and through the years he has been on Broadway, in regional theater and in the movies. He portrayed Johnny Ola in The Godfather, Part II, and his other films include Dog Day Afternoon, Night Falls on Manhattan and And Justice for All.

Not a major career, he admits -- until now. Forty-eight years in the business, he says. And I finally made it!

Michael Imperioli has made it as well. And there is one thing he has in common with Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano's murderous and ambitious young nephew.

Christopher spent much of last season trying to write a movie script before deciding to remain loyal to his organized-crime family in the hope of becoming a made Mob member. Imperioli is already an accomplished screenwriter.

The actor penned a Sopranos episode last season called From Where to Eternity. In it, Christopher, clinically dead for a moment during surgery, has an out-of-body experience. Imperioli also cowrote the screenplay for, and costarred in, Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, the story of the months surrounding the time the Son of Sam killer terrorized New York City.

Christopher is kind of caught between the past and the future, says Imperioli, who is in his mid-30s. He's not really emblematic of his generation. He's still kind of connected to the old guys. He aspires to be like them. He's part of the MTV generation, he's been influenced by pop culture, but at the same time he has a respect for the old traditions. Last season was a crossroads in his life -- he had these aspirations, he tried to be a writer, he took an acting class, met up with these Hollywood people. But Tony forced him to make a choice, and he realized that the world of Hollywood was not for him.

Imperioli says he finds Christopher's loyalty admirable. But of course, there's that other side of him, he says. He's very impulsive. He speaks his mind. He reacts the way he feels he should, just off the top of his head. There's not a lot of deliberation. I find that interesting. It's how I might react without censoring -- if I could just do whatever I wanted all the time, maybe elements of Christopher would come out in me.

Imperioli grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, in a mostly Italian neighborhood near the Bronx. His father, Dan, was a bus driver and acted in community theater. Michael began studying acting when he was 17.

I didn't really start considering it until my last year in high school, when you're really faced with a decision about what you want to do with your life, he says. I was thinking about going into medicine at one time. I always saw a lot of movies, and that last year I started reading plays, and I said to myself, well, if you have only one shot at life I guess this would be a lot more interesting.

Once he made that decision, he says, it was very freeing, because you're in school to think academically, to go to college and get a good job. And I decided not to go to college, but to study acting instead. I realized you could do whatever you wanted to do if you had the guts to go out and try to do it. You didn't have to take the prescribed route that you were conditioned to take.

The acting road led to Off Broadway and a play called Aven'U Boys. And to movies, with roles in Goodfellas and five Spike Lee films, including Clockers, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe, the casting directors of The Sopranos, had cast him in several previous roles, so it was natural that they would see me, a young Italian guy, for 'The Sopranos,' he says.

The fact that Christopher is a budding writer was purely a coincidence, Imperioli says, because he began to write approximately five years ago.

I'm doing more and more of it, he says. I find it both interesting and gratifying, especially

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