Sure, it’s been two decades—but it’s not like people can just suddenly fuhgeddaboudit. “It’s impossible to stop talking about ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says Vincent Curatola, who played mob boss Johnny “Sack” Sacrimoni on the legendary TV show. “It’s like trying to stop talking about your life. It was a phenomenon, like an out-of-body experience.”
The HBO series came out of nowhere in January 1999, with a cast of actors no one really knew, and set the television world on fire, creating its own niche in television history. A dozen years after it aired its controversial final episode, “The Sopranos” remains one of the most influential and honored shows of all time, setting the table for a new golden age of premium TV that includes everything from “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” to “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones.”
Today, the story continues. Series creator David Chase has written The Many Saints of Newark, a feature film that will show a young Tony Soprano growing up with his father’s generation of mobsters. It made news in January with the casting of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini, as the younger version of his father’s most famous character, Tony Soprano.
“It’s a profound honor to continue my dad’s legacy while stepping into the shoes of a young Tony Soprano,” Gandolfini said in a statement. “I’m thrilled that I am going to have the opportunity to work with David Chase and the incredible company of talent he has assembled.” The film is due to be released next year.
The original series enjoyed both rave reviews and an immense fan following, and it turned its cast into household names—or at least their screen names, which didn’t always sit well with the actors. “It scared me when people started calling me by my character’s name. I could never get used to it,” says Joe Pantoliano, who played loose-cannon Ralph Cifaretto.
Steve Schirripa, who played the lumbering Bobby “Baccala” Baccalieri, gets called “Bobby” often. When he hears his own name, he says, “I usually stop and think, ‘Do I know this guy?’ ” Before the show, he was entertainment director at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel, and only dabbled in acting. “My agent told me not to take the part, but I wanted to do this,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to get any job on TV. That it happened to be the greatest show of all time? It was like winning the lottery twice.”
“The Sopranos” turned HBO into a programming powerhouse. “It marked a tipping point that put us on a different level of the cultural firmament,” says Richard Plepler, HBO’s longtime CEO and chairman, who announced he was leaving the company on February 28. “It was transformative.”
At its peak, “The Sopranos” had an average audience of 18.2 million. Despite only being available to a fraction of television viewers, it was outperforming network shows available to all. The show made history, becoming the first cable entry nominated for an Emmy as best dramatic series, and was nominated for that award each season, winning in 2004 and 2007. The show earned Emmys (amid multiple nominations) for Gandolfini, Edie Falco and other cast members, as well as numerous writing and directing Emmys for Chase and others on his team. When it all went to black on June 10, 2007, television would never be the same.
The man who started it all, David Chase, didn’t expect any of this to happen. For starters, he wasn’t even planning on making this story into a TV show. His original idea was to make a film about a gangster with an overbearing mother. He wanted Robert DeNiro to star, and Anne Bancroft in the role of mom. But his agent told him that nobody cared about gangster movies anymore, and suggested making The Godfather for television. Chase took his idea to Fox, which turned it down. He then took it to HBO, which said yes. The kind of language, sex and violence that regularly punctuated episodes of “The Sopranos” would never have flown on network television. Chase, an Italian-American reared in North Caldwell, New Jersey (his father changed the family name from DeCesare before David was born), had written for the networks before, with credits including “The Rockford Files.” He was continually frustrated by the strict rules about what couldn’t be shown and said on their airwaves. But on HBO, Chase could blaze a television trail, free of FCC rules.
On January 10, 1999, “The Sopranos” aired for the first time, opening with what became an iconic set of credits. A shadowy Tony Soprano emerges from the Lincoln Tunnel in a large car, a cigar blazing, with the pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline in his rearview mirror, headed for suburban New Jersey. A thumpingly insistent bass drum beat on the soundtrack propelled the rolling bass line that marked his progress from hard-edge city to lush suburb with the growling vocals of the little-known British band A3 singing words that portended something unsettling: “Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.”
“You’ve got a beautiful retelling of the immigrant experience from arrival to making it big in just two or three generations, within Tony’s trip up the turnpike during the opening credits,” says Professor Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “As you watch those credits, you have no idea who this guy is. Except you can see there’s as much smoke coming from his cigar as from the industrial wasteland he’s driving through. I could talk for a half-hour about the opening credits alone.”
Few expected that opening scene to lead to a show that resonated the way it did. “At that time, not a lot of cable series were successful,” says Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, Tony’s protégé. “David wasn’t a brand name like Steven Bochco. But it impressed me because of the people who started to come on board.” One of those was Lorraine Bracco, a one-time Oscar nominee who convinced Chase that she should play Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s therapist, instead of wife Carmela. “It was the best script I’d seen in 10 years. Since ‘Goodfellas’,” she says.
One of the early doubters was Chase himself. Before the first season aired, he didn’t believe the show would go anywhere. When they finished shooting the final episode—months before the first episode was broadcast—actress Edie Falco, who played Carmela Soprano, approached Chase with a final, “Well I guess that’s it for us.” “I said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ ” Chase told the Los Angeles Times. “We decided that we’d had too much fun doing it. So probably it would be canceled because they don’t want you to have too much fun.”
Chase, who initially hoped the pilot would be rejected so he could go back to his idea of turning it into a feature film, found himself instead running the hottest show on television.
The Hottest Show On TV
Dominic Chianese was a working actor who’d made his Broadway debut 35 years earlier. Despite a resumé that included playing the scheming Johnny Ola in The Godfather Part II, Chianese had to supplement his acting income with day jobs. “I was like a guy ready to drown that someone threw a life preserver to,” Chianese says of being cast as Corrado “Junior” Soprano, Tony’s uncle and frequent antagonist.
When the reviews started coming out, things began changing right away. “You could feel the buzz at the next reading,” Chianese says. “David was shocked.” Matt Zoller Seitz, co-author of “The Sopranos Sessions,” was TV critic for the Newark Star-Ledger when “The Sopranos” went on the air and covered its first three seasons. “I knew this was a landmark show,” he says. “It was only a question of whether other people would agree—and they did. A lot of people knew this was something different.” Says Imperioli, “The reviews were so over-the-top that ‘Saturday Night Live’ did a spoof just of the reviews.”
Suddenly, here was a show capable of changing America’s viewing patterns. “Sunday night became ‘Sopranos’ night,” says Jerry Adler, who played loan shark Herman “Hesh” Rabkin. “Everything in people’s lives seemed to be organized around that one hour of ‘The Sopranos,’ including mine.”
“I knew people who ran restaurants, who told me that, on Sunday nights when ‘The Sopranos’ was on, the place would empty out,” Curatola says. “Very recently someone came up to me and said, ‘You guys were the Beatles of TV.’ ” Everybody seemed to be watching the show, including the FBI and the Mafia: “We had FBI consultants and we’d hear that FBI agents would go in to work and talk about the show on Monday mornings,” recalls Terence Winter, who joined as a writer for the second season and became one of the show’s producers. “And from FBI wiretaps, we heard that mob guys were having the same conversations. Word got back to us, from an FBI agent, after an episode in which Tony wore shorts, that some mob boss was taped saying, ‘A don doesn’t wear shorts. It makes you look weak.’ David ended up incorporating that line into the show.”
Being on the show was one thing. With a robust death count, staying employed proved to be difficult. The threat of a character getting whacked meant you were being asked to leave the most interesting party you’d ever attended. “It wasn’t like being one of the ‘Friends.’ None of them ever got killed off,” says Schirripa, whose character lasted until the series’ penultimate episode. “There wasn’t really job security because you never knew if your character was going to be killed. Then not only was your character dead, but you were out of work.”
With deaths in (nearly) every episode, fans wanted to know who was next to be whacked. The possibility of plot secrets leaking to the media led Chase to take serious precautions. Drea de Matteo recalls the secrecy when they filmed the final episode for her character, Adriana. “People were paying top dollar to crew members for information,” she says. To ward off a leak, they filmed the scene two ways, and in one version, she lives. “But nobody knew which ending he was going to use, including me.” In the end, Adriana is driven to the woods and pulled from a car by Tony’s right-hand man Silvio Dante, and despite her tearful cries is shot as she tries to crawl away.
That kind of violence defined “The Sopranos.” Pantoliano, whose character died in a savage fight with Tony involving fists, frying pans, knives and even a blast of Raid to the eyes, brushes aside those who complained about the brutality. “It’s been going on since Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde, even Genghis Khan. They don’t make movies about Mother Teresa. But this was a show about the deconstruction of the American family.”
The term family takes on multiple meanings in the shadowy “Sopranos” world. It also explains its appeal, says author Gay Talese, who wrote Honor Thy Father about gangster Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno, whose situation mirrored Tony’s. “That’s what made it compelling,” says Talese. “No matter how nefarious and murderous and vulgar they were, there was a family side to the story. And so much that was going on in the crime story had to do with the family story.”
That element—crime boss as modern suburban dad coping with an unhappy wife and a domineering mother, not to mention teenage kids—gave “The Sopranos” its distinctive tang and emotional depth. Tony might have been the don of New Jersey, but he was barely king of his own castle.
“Having the second family was genius on David’s part,” Chianese says. “He went inside himself, took his soul and split it in two.” The fulcrum of that balancing act between families was Dr. Melfi, the therapist Tony sees after suffering panic attacks that cause him to pass out. The tension from that therapeutic relationship rippled out in all directions: Carmela’s jealousy of a female therapist, Tony’s fear his therapy might be discovered by his crime family and Melfi’s moral conundrums about treating someone who was also a ruthless killer. Says Talese, a fan from the first episode, “What made it interesting was that a psychiatrist had a role as an adviser and counselor to this guy. And Tony had the vulnerabilities, concerns and anxieties that we all share. So it was a very human story in a very inhuman world.”
“In most movies, the mob boss never gets to discuss his inner feelings,” says author Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the screenplays to Goodfellas and Casino. “At no point does The Godfather explain where he came from. It’s all painted around him. David Chase came up with the notion of going to a shrink, and that was the perfect vehicle. It allowed the audience to get into the mind of Tony Soprano in an interesting way.”
Soprano was a big guy with big power, and he also indulged in big cigars. So did the character Big Pussy, played for two seasons by Vincent Pastore. “Tony and I smoked big stogies in the show,” Pastore says. “It’s a prop; it’s symbolism. When someone is smoking a cigarette, it means they’re nervous. But a cigar is a personal thing. It’s an extension of the character.”
Every cigar seen on screen had a purpose, and none were smoked on camera by accident. “Nothing happened that wasn’t scripted. Every action on the screen was vetted by David,” says Winter. “Cigars create a powerful image. You see Tony or people in positions of authority or power, and the cigar is part of the image they project. You see somebody smoking a cigar and there’s a level of authority that comes with it.”
Gandolfini, a large, sensitive man who died from a heart attack at the age of 51 in 2013, struggled with portraying the character’s darkest impulses, particularly his acts of impulsive, brutal violence. “It wasn’t easy for Jim to go home after playing violent scenes and scenes of cheating on his wife,” Bracco says. “Off-camera, he was great fun, a big kid—a big teddy bear. He was charming and sweet and moving.”
Aida Turturro, who played Tony’s elder sister Janice, had been friends with Gandolfini since working with him onstage in the early 1990s: “Everybody loved Jimmy,” she says. “He had the biggest heart. And he was no diva. The reason that set worked and everyone loved being on the set was because there was no diva bullshit from anyone. Jimmy worked his ass off. He was so generous with everyone. There are a lot of selfish actors out there, but he wasn’t one of them.”
Gandolfini wasn’t the only one who had problems with the words and actions the series required. Chianese recalls balking at some of the language that Junior Soprano used. “The toughest moment was when David wanted me to say the ‘F’ word in front of Nancy Marchand,” Chianese says, referring to the actress who played Tony’s difficult mother, Livia. “That was taboo when I was growing up. I didn’t even curse as a kid. I was really upset. But it didn’t faze Nancy. Then there was an episode where I had to say the ‘C’ word. My sister called me and said, ‘How dare you?’ My aunt, who was 95, shook her head and said, ‘You never cursed as a child.’”
To this day, it’s easy to start an argument about “The Sopranos”: Just mention the series’ final episode, one of the most controversial and provocative ever produced for television. In the course of the final hour, Chase seemingly tied up the loose plot strands from the season, ending the war with the New York crime family.
With life back to normal, the nuclear Soprano family was off to their local diner for dinner. But even as they gathered, there were suspicious-looking characters lurking. Were they there to kill Tony?
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Just as the tension reached its peak, with the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” playing on the jukebox, the screen went black. End of series. The implication? That if someone in that diner didn’t kill Tony that moment, someone eventually would, because that was the world he inhabited. For the past 13 years, however, Chase has been dogged by what’s essentially a yes/no question: Did Tony die or didn’t he?
In “The Sopranos Sessions,” Chase, who casually referred to the ending as “a death scene,” said Tony “could have been whacked in a diner. That was the point of the scene… I never thought it would create that much of a stir. Never thought, ‘Oh, they’ll be talking about it for 10 years because I want them to talk about it for 10 years.’ But no matter what I say, I dig myself in deeper.”
Streaming platforms and binge-watching may affect the ability of new weekly shows to break out as the kind of “appointment television” that “The Sopranos” did. But the on-demand availability of the series has made it a new favorite of millennials, a generation too young to watch the series in real time. “I have freshmen in my classes, who were not even alive when the show went on the air, who have watched the entire thing,” says Thompson. “I’ve got kids in their 20s stopping me on the street,” says Schirripa.
The Story Continues
With a fanbase that’s clearly still eager to hear more of the Soprano story, Chase will return to the mobster world he created for The Many Saints of Newark, which is scheduled for a 2020 release. The film will be set in New Jersey between 1967 and 1971, telling the story about the fathers, uncles and other predecessors to the characters that made up the HBO series.
The main character in the film will be Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, father to Christopher Moltisanti. (The surname means “many saints” in Italian.) Although he is dead by the time “The Sopranos” series begins, we hear of Dickie Moltisanti several times in the series, as he was Carmela’s cousin and a close associate of Tony, who calls Christopher his nephew, even though the two aren’t related.
Another key character in the new movie will be young Tony Soprano himself, and the film began generating preproduction buzz when it was announced that Chase had cast Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini, in the role.
He’s not quite as tall, and he’s far more slim, but there are times when Michael Gandolfini has that look that instantly reminds you of his late father, especially when you see him break into a wide smile. He’s only 19, with few acting credits to his name. He played a busboy in the 2018 movie Ocean’s 8, the same year he had a five-episode run in the HBO series “The Deuce.”
Those who knew the show best have faith in the young Gandolfini. Chase gives a verbal shrug when asked about the choice: “It wasn’t a tough decision,” he says. “I saw him do it and that was it.”
Winter says, “I’ve known Michael since he was a baby. He’s hugely talented, like his dad. But those are big shoes to fill.”
“By having Jimmy’s son in the movie,” says Turturro, “it’s like part of Jimmy and so it’s part of the family.”
Other cast members for The Many Saints include “Walking Dead” alum Jon Bernthal; Corey Stoll, who played a Congressman with an addiction problem in “House of Cards;” Vera Farmiga (from The Departed); Billy Magnussen (The Big Short) and Alessandro Nivola in the lead role as Moltisanti.
The prequel is keeping Chase busy for now. And while platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have opened their vaults to lure other show-runners to their unfettered playing fields, Chase says no one has approached him about creating a new series to bring his work back to the small screen, not that he’s necessarily interested.
“Once in a while, we get interested in the idea of doing something there,” he says. “But then, whatever the idea is wears itself out after a couple of weeks. I could see how it could be a great thing. But there’s so much of it, so much competition, that I don’t know how anything can break out anymore.”
If Chase does do another TV project, don’t expect it to air on a network.
“I can’t possibly imagine why anyone would take an adventurous new show to one of the networks,” Chase says. “I don’t watch them a lot but when I do, it seems to be the same old thing. I can’t tell one from the other. So, if it were me, I wouldn’t take a show there.”
Many of the people behind the cameras and the words for “The Sopranos” have gone on to create other acclaimed projects. Winter wrote and produced “Boardwalk Empire,” the HBO series starring “Sopranos” vet Steve Buscemi as a gangster in Atlantic City during Prohibition. Matthew Weiner, who was a “Sopranos” writer and producer, went on to create “Mad Men,” the hit AMC series that starred Jon Hamm and earned plenty of Emmies. Tim Van Patten, who directed 20 episodes of “The Sopranos,” more than any other, has done work on the latest HBO hit, “Game of Thrones.”
For some, there’s just no escaping “The Sopranos.” Asked whether, at age 73, he thinks about his legacy and the show, Chase gives a rueful chuckle and says, “Unfortunately, I do.” Pressed on his answer, Chase admits that thinking that way seems self-involved to him.
“Certainly, it will be a great legacy to leave,” he says. “But when someone asks you that, you feel like a jerk admitting that you do.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.