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The Sopranos: The Final Season

After more than eight years and six seasons, the saga of the New Jersey crime family will come to a close after nine more episodes.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 1)

Imperioli says he also has no idea about which direction Chase will choose for the final scenes of "The Sopranos." "If I had to guess, though," he says, "it's not going to end 'happily ever after.' That's not David Chase. Knowing the way David does things, I would bet money that not everyone's going to make it."

David Chase's road to "The Sopranos" began in the mid-1950s, when he was a very young Italian-American guy—eight or nine years old—growing up in New Jersey. He enjoyed watching old films on television, and one evening he came upon his first gangster movie: The Public Enemy, the classic 1931 film starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, a crime boss who rises and falls during the Roaring Twenties.

There was a program on WOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York, called "Million Dollar Movie." It showed the same film five times a week. The Public Enemy was one of those films—and Chase watched it every night. He was scared. He cried. "The last 15, 20 minutes was very frightening," he recalled. And he was hooked.

He could compare what he saw on the large screen with the small taste of Mafia life that he acquired in his neighborhood. In the suburbs of his childhood, mobsters lurked. Chase (the family name was originally DeCesare) often heard tales of them, but he had little contact with actual mafiosi, except for the husband of a cousin. "No one ever says this," he recalled. "They don't tell you this. I didn't know that when I was little." But he could see that his cousin's family "always had Cadillacs." Then the husband "got busted one day. The kids were going off to school. He was taken away by the FBI."

Chase's mobster connection, however, wouldn't fully assert itself in his television work until more than 40 years later, after more than two decades as a journeyman TV writer, producer and director ("The Rockford Files," "I'll Fly Away," "Northern Exposure"). And the idea for doing a TV series essentially inspired by The Godfather wasn't his—it actually came from Brad Grey, one of the series' producers.

When Chase was planning the two-hour pilot for "The Sopranos," he said, he had no idea that it would turn into a six-season, eight-year success story. He wasn't, in fact, looking to create a TV series. He was trying to use the pilot to get out of television, to create something that would showcase his abilities so he could get a job directing movies. (It was, he said, a career move that didn't work out the way he planned.)

The fact that "The Sopranos" was rejected by every major television network before it landed at HBO has become an iconic part of television history. "I did not want to do this until we got involved with HBO," he said. "And then it changed everything."

The classic first season featured an epic duel between Tony and his mother, Livia, memorably portrayed by Nancy Marchand. Livia was the dreadful mother to end all dreadful mothers: conniving, duplicitous, demeaning—every word that emanated from her mouth was calculated to induce profound guilt. And, of course, toward the end of that premiere season, she collaborated with Tony's Uncle Junior in an unsuccessful attempt to have her son blown away.

How did Chase come up with such a creation? Well, he admitted, Livia was based, at least in part, on real life—his own.

"My mother was fairly much like Livia Soprano," he told his appreciative audience. "Livia is based on my mother. My wife told me constantly that I have to write about my mother."

His own mother, he said, was "terribly funny and crazy." It was "endlessly amusing how off the wall she was." So, he said, he thought it would be interesting to figure out how he could "channel this without it being another 'whining about your mother story.' "

"I had been to therapy because of my mother," he said, and that's how Tony came to be in therapy.

The fact that Tony visits a psychotherapist has been controversial from the beginning. Some viewers have questioned how, why or whether a mob boss would ever wind up spending time in a therapist's office, especially a female therapist. (On the other hand, many psychotherapists and professional groups have applauded the realistic nature of the sessions.) First, the dissenters said, mob figures have never been known for their introspection. And Tony rarely if ever pays attention to the strong women in his life. So why does he constantly go back to Dr. Jennifer Melfi?

"I think that, frankly, she is a respite, a quiet hour or two in his week," Chase said. "She's an attractive woman. She'll listen to him without saying anything back to him. She never remonstrates with him. She never nags him. He's got all these guys around him all the time. She's a haven of peace."

Chase admitted that for a long time he was worried "that people would say, 'Oh, that's bullshit, a mob guy doesn't see a therapist.' Then I heard two years ago that Frank Costello went to a therapist."

There is one ironclad rule, though, about Tony and Dr. Melfi, a decree made at the show's beginning: they will never get together sexually. "Early on, my first meeting with HBO, they said, 'Was he going to fuck the psychiatrist?' We all decided, right then. No. That's what would happen on ABC."

Lorraine Bracco, who plays the psychotherapist Tony never will fuck, has long said—with good reason—that "The Sopranos" was the "big turning point" of her career. Bracco declared bankruptcy in 1999, the year the series began. Then came success—for the series and for her.

"I always say that a few years ago I was in the hole for God knows how many millions," Bracco told Cigar Aficionado. "And now I have that many millions in the plus category. And it's all because of 'The Sopranos.' "

These days, in addition to those millions, Bracco has a contract to star in and produce films for the Lifetime cable network. And in 2006, she started her own wine label, importing seven reds and a Pinot Grigio—from Italy, naturally—with a rosé on the way in 2007. "We've sold almost 13,000 cases in seven months," she says.

A decade ago, in her pre-"Sopranos" days, Bracco's life was very different. She had been nominated for an Oscar in 1991 for her portrayal of a Mafia wife in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, but over the next eight years, her career had become mired in undistinguished roles in forgettable films. Adding to her problems was the unfavorable publicity she received in her ultimately successful custody fight with her ex-husband, the actor Harvey Keitel, over their daughter, Stella. (It was the custody battle that led her to file for bankruptcy.)

"You can't be in a custody battle and be off in Hong Kong making a movie," she says, minutes before heading off to a meeting to discuss the distribution of her wines. "I refused a lot of work in order to stay home, and I owed $3 million in legal fees. That was very difficult."

Her role as Dr. Melfi has given her much more than the financial security she always hoped for, she says. It has provided her with "validation" as an actor.

"It's a great role for a woman over 40," says Bracco (who is now 52). "It was difficult for me—an acting challenge, acting out of type, against the grain. But there is nothing like being in something that receives critical and public acclaim. It's an unbelievable gift."

The character of Dr. Melfi has developed over the show's six seasons. "I made her a lonely woman," Bracco says. "This is a woman who is married to her work. I thought that would be interesting, because in America we want everything to be perfect. We want a successful family life and a successful work life. I didn't want to make her that way."

Shooting the final episodes of "The Sopranos" has not been easy for her, or for her fellow cast members, she says. "I think we all need a psychiatrist at this point. There are all kinds of feelings and emotions, and everybody at times is really losing it. It's like being a child for years, and all of a sudden we have to go out into the wilderness."

The nearly nine years since filming began "is a long time in this business to be employed and to be financially taken care of. It's usually a month-to-month kind of thing. I was recently at the funeral for Peter Boyle of 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' and the whole cast was there, and I said to Brad Garrett," who played Raymond's brother, "that we're going through what you guys have just gone through. Very few actors have lived with a cast for nine or ten years. We've been through college graduations, kindergarten graduations, marriages, divorces, affairs, births, deaths. We've buried people's mothers and fathers. It's been a big family."

Bracco was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. Her father worked in the Fulton Fish Market. It may seem hard to believe, but when she was 12, her schoolmates on the bus voted her the ugliest girl in sixth grade. It was an unwanted distinction that affected her strongly and, in a way, marked her for life. "I was very hurt," she once told The New York Times. "I remember crawling into my father's lap and crying, saying I don't ever want to go to school again. But my father said the magic words: 'You're the most beautiful girl in the world to me,' and then gave me a pat on the shoulder and said, 'You'll be in school tomorrow at 9.' "

Her father was right. The ugliest girl in class became, before long, a fashion model. Starting in her teen years, she spent a decade working in Paris. "People just kept pushing me, saying I could model," she told the Times. Her English teacher, Mr. Horowitz, took her into Manhattan to meet with Wilhelmina, head of a major modeling agency that still bears her name, "and she took me right then and there."

Moving from modeling to acting, though, was not easy. "It took what seemed a lifetime," she said. "I made a movie in France, and I hated it. I was bored by the whole process. It only became interesting after I met Harvey Keitel and returned here. Harvey taught me what an actor does, how it works. I sat in the Actors Studio behind him for a year and a half, two years, until I said, 'I think I can do that.' "

How did she wind up with a wine to call her own? "Many actresses are asked to make licensing deals for hair, makeup or perfume products," she says. "I was also asked, and I was very flattered, but I felt it wasn't me. I'm not one to tell somebody that if you use this cream you're not going to look like you're 50. I just can't do that." But wines are different. "I had lived in France for 10 years. If you live in France, eating and drinking are a big part of your culture, so I learned a lot about drinking wines. I visited Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne country. I was incredibly lucky to drink some of the greatest wines ever made. So when my business manager asked if I wanted to import a line of wines, it seemed a really good fit for me, even though I had never done anything like it before."

Bracco has also never before had to face a future without "The Sopranos." But, she says, despite the pending loss of her HBO family, she is excited about the future. "I'm 52," she says, "and I still feel like I'm eight. So life is good."

When it comes to the women of "The Sopranos," some viewers still harbor a wish for the return of Adriana, Christopher's fiancée, who was, for all intents and purposes, knocked off two seasons ago, in the middle of a bare and desolate wood—though we never saw her body. Well, viewers, according to David Chase, you should abandon all hope.

"Honest to God, she will never come back," Chase told his question-and-answer audience emphatically. "She's dead." He does, however, regret her passing. "She really added something" to the show, he said. Drea de Matteo, who played her, "was really good, very different from every other woman you see on television. That was a loss. We didn't want to do it. But we had to."

And where is that body we never did see? "Rotting in a coal mine in Pennsylvania," Chase announced. At least, "we decided that's probably what happened."

Last season, homosexuality became a major theme, with the outing, ousting and offing of Tony's mob aide Vito Spatafore. Was the decision to focus on a gay Mafioso based on all the recent newspaper headlines about the battle over gay marriage? Well, actually, Chase said, the idea came from the actor, Joe Gannascoli, who played Spatafore. "He came to us with a book about a gay wiseguy in Brooklyn," Chase said. "He's the only actor who ever suggested a story line."


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