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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 2)

The prime engineer of Vito's demise was the gleefully yet matter-of-factly evil Phil Leotardo, the acting chief of the New York mob. Leotardo is portrayed by Frank Vincent, an Italian-American actor whose film specialty, for more than 30 years, has been violence—offing, and being offed, with the best of them. Vincent, now 67, first garnered notice as the tough Salvy in Martin Scorsese's 1980 classic Raging Bull. As Billy Batts in Goodfellas, he was offed by Joe Pesci (in real life, a longtime friend). But Vincent and his friendly baseball bat got even with Pesci five years later in Casino.

Yet despite the crucial role that carnage has played in his career, Vincent says he is ambivalent about its constant depiction. "It's not good, but it's a necessary evil to portray the genre," he told Cigar Aficionado.

But today's mega-bloodshed disturbs him. "When Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney shot people, they fell down and that was it. Now, because of technology, it's much more graphic. I guess it's not good for the culture. I don't know how to justify it. But as an actor, it's part of what you do, something we have to do. And after all, it's make-believe. Superman flies. Spider-Man jumps around buildings. It shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's entertainment. You have the option not to watch it or show it to your kids."

His character, of course, is among the most violent—a distinction notable on a series like "The Sopranos." "Phil was away in prison for 20 years," Vincent says. "He put up with a lot of bullshit. He's home now, and in a position where he can get what in his own mind he sees as the rewards for everything he went through. He worked hard to be a successful gangster and got sidetracked, and now he's out of jail and looking for his due."

Will Phil be any different in the final nine episodes from the way he was last year? "He's not so different," Vincent says. "He's a force to be reckoned with." But beyond that, he says, he can't be more specific. Besides, he doesn't really know for sure yet.

"We don't know what David's writing," he says. "All I know is I have to go to work one day later this month—I have a lot of scenes. And I don't know what happens after that. Whatever David's doing in his mind is what he's doing. He doesn't give you any idea of what's coming next."

One thing Chase apparently does do, Vincent says, is telephone an actor who is about to go the way of all flesh. "From what I hear, if he's going to assassinate you, he calls you"—which can sometimes mistakenly put the fear of God (or Chase) into an actor.

"An interesting thing happened a few months ago," Vincent recalls. "I came home, and there was David's voice on the answering machine. We're friendly, I know him socially, but there he was, saying, 'Frank, this is David, give me a call.' It was too late to call back that night, and I had to wait until the next morning. All night long I was thinking, Why is David calling me? What does he want? That morning at 10, the phone rang, and it's David, and he says, 'Remember that guy on Bloomfield Avenue?' He was asking me about things that actually happened to gangsters in this area. So I dodged a bullet. He hasn't made that phone call to me yet. I'm still here."

But the bullet no one can dodge is the end of the series. "'The Sopranos' has really been a shot in the arm for my career," Vincent says. "As you get older in this business, there are only so many roles you can do." But he says he isn't worried—he has several projects in the works, including commercials and a film in development. "You have to have a lot of balls in the air at the same time, and if two become reality, that's good."

One that is close to becoming reality is his own cigar line. "It's in the development stage," Vincent says. "They will have Connecticut wrappers. And it will be a light cigar. I don't like heavy cigars."

A native of North Adams, Massachusetts, Vincent grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and at an early age fell in love with music, studying piano, trumpet and drums, but settling on percussion. He started a band that he called Frank Vincent and the Aristocats, and he soon began working with a guitarist named Joe Pesci. In his first film, made in 1976 and called The Death Collector, Vincent's character went to meet his maker while sitting on the toilet.

When "The Sopranos" was first casting, he auditioned for the role of Uncle Junior. His competitors include Dominic Chianese, who got the part, and Tony Sirico, who became Paulie Walnuts. It took three more years for Chase to decide to make Vincent a part of the "Sopranos" TV family.

And now, Vincent says, he thinks "The Sopranos" is coming to its end at just the right moment. "The show has been on the air for a long time," he says. "And I think it's great that it's leaving while it's still at the top."

Throughout the show's existence, Italian-Americans have complained about the way they are depicted. Some of the characters, for example, make explicitly racist statements, especially about African Americans. (What African Americans say to him about those words, Chase told his McGraw-Hill Building audience, is, "'Thank you, because we know that's what you people say about us.'")

How does he respond to the Italian Americans who complain? He tells them that they should ask themselves why the show is so enduring, why people feel it is so valued. "But," he said, "they don't ask themselves that question."

While an actor, such as Joe Gannascoli, may suggest a story line, no one is likely to suggest a line change. Unlike in some movies, Chase said, there is no ad-libbing on "The Sopranos." The actors stick to the script. "Not that I'm opposed to it," he said. "In a movie it might be one thing. Martin Scorsese does things that way. But a TV show has a factory aspect. It has to keep going."

At first, an episode took eight days to shoot, he said, but in recent seasons, as things got more complex, it has been more like 12. "We're writing one show, ending the show prior, coming up with stories for the shows ahead, prepping direction, casting." It is, he said, a production line that has been constantly rolling. Until now.

So what's next for Chase? "I don't have any strict plan," he said. "I want to take time off, and maybe direct and write a movie."

And television? "I've been working in television a long time, 30 years now. After this I have no further interest in working in TV—anywhere, whether it's network or cable. I've done it. I don't want to do that anymore."

As he once said, network TV is in the business of selling, not of creating art. "Their object is to keep you in a good mood, so you buy things," he said. They don't want to upset viewers. "They really want you to buy cars."

That said, though, Chase acknowledged that "you never can tell what will happen. When I bashed the networks it didn't mean that there's nothing good ever done on a network. It's just that there are a lot of strictures. I worked on a lot of network things in my own career that I point to and say, you know, I have pride in it."

Intense pride is something he feels, and should feel, about "The Sopranos." And who knows, perhaps that pride will make him change his mind—and maybe even influence the story's climactic moments.

A year ago, in a talk with the Times, Chase told a reporter that he would "three-quarters miss doing" the series, "one-quarter not." (Gandolfini, who had earlier said that for him it was "half and half," decided that Chase's estimate seemed right.) Chase insisted at the time that "this is the absolute end." But then he added that he "could not promise that we would not come back and do a movie," if in a few years he got an idea "for a really great 'Sopranos' movie."

"I don't think that will happen," he told the Times. "But if one morning somebody woke up and said this would make a really good, concise, contained 'Sopranos' story, I wouldn't rule that out."

It would be tough to make a "Sopranos" movie without Tony Soprano. So maybe Tony will live to fight again. We'll find out in June.

Chase once said that for him, it was important that television should provide its viewers with "a little bit of poetry." Over the last eight years, that's what he has done, in every episode. And now all of us are eagerly awaiting the last stanza, the last verse, of Chase's epic and tragic poem about American life in the twenty-first century.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times.

 

A Sopranos Finale
by Jeff Greenfield

If you want to understand a media phenomenon like "The Sopranos," who better to turn to than Jerry Della Femina, the advertising legend who grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was home to a regiment of aspiring Tony Sopranos.

"Tony takes his daughter to hunt for a college and winds up killing a mobster who was on the lam—every father's dream," says Della Femina. "Tony maintains his happy home and still manages to have affairs with Russian hookers—every father's other dream."

Well, maybe that's not the whole story; not when you have a cast of characters as rich and complex as any in popular fiction. Not when you have the pitch-perfect balance of sudden violence and off-the-wall humor. (Tony's crime buddies, and Tony himself, are somewhat out of phase with current events and the English language. Tony hears Dr. Jennifer Melfi note that "revenge is a dish best served cold," and puts it this way: "Revenge is a dish of cold cuts." On the subject of current events, Bobby Bacala notes, "Quasimodo predicted all of this.")

But the college-tour murder episode—one of the most acclaimed in the program's seven-year run on HBO—does hint at the power of this saga to draw in not just the largest audience for any cable drama, but one of the most fanatically devoted that any drama, in any form, has won. The episode captures the dramatic pun at the heart of the series: the fact that Tony Soprano is a "family" man, in both senses of the word (and that both families are weighing him down).

You see the effects of his twin burdens in the opening shot of almost every new season. Tony, clad in T-shirt, boxers and a bathrobe—Coriolanus with a gut and an ever-receding hairline—shuffles out the door of his home to fetch the morning paper. His closest relatives include a sometimes demanding wife with aspirations of financial and sexual independence, a perennial screwup of a son, a sister bearing New Age platitudes and 80 or so extra pounds, an uncle who has twice almost killed him (one time, under a delusion that Tony was someone else—maybe). More than that, there are his parents: a father whose mob career dictated the path Tony would take, and an embittered, ice-cold mother who set in motion his near-assassination.

"After all this time," says his shrink, Dr. Melfi, "you still can't accept the fact that you had a mother who didn't love you."


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