Cigar Aficionado

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.

David Chase doesn't look like a mastermind of organized crime. But for millions of devoted television viewers around the world, over the last eight years, that's just what he has been. Chase is the creator, the godfather, of "The Sopranos," the most popular program in the history of cable TV, the winner of multiple Emmy awards, the show that has changed forever the nature of the small screen and made massive fortunes for its producers, its stars and its network. Yet despite Chase's intimate knowledge of all things mob related, when he was asked why his series and other Mafia movies are so popular, he immediately cited a cinema expert of another era: the legendary film director John Ford.

Ford "said that we live in a very complicated technological age," Chase recalled during a free, public question-and-answer session last fall at the McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan. "Everything's fractured. We work for corporations. The government is beyond you. It's all depersonalized. But a mob movie is you and your tribe. It's you and your clan against the clan over the hill."

After a 10-month hiatus, the final nine episodes of the sixth and last season in the epic saga of Tony Soprano and his crime clan will begin on HBO on April 8. And, to discover the ultimate fate of Tony, one of television's most beloved, evil, influential and iconic creations, what is expected to be the largest audience in the history of cable television will tune in on a Sunday night in June, for the very last chapter of the landmark series.

In recent months, as "The Sopranos" was filming its farewell episodes, three of the show's key figures—Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's conflicted nephew; Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony's truth-telling psychotherapist; and Frank Vincent, who plays Phil Leotardo, Tony's vicious and cunning archenemy—took time out to talk about the series, its origins, what it has meant to them, and their expectations about life after "The Sopranos."

Little has been revealed about this ultimate season. We know that it begins a year after last June's finale; that Christopher is at last getting a chance to make his Saw meets The Godfather II horror film, with Daniel Baldwin as the star. And that Leotardo has recovered from his heart attack, and that his battle with Tony takes on new dimensions.

But whatever happens, one thing is certain: to paraphrase Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar—a notable mob tale of a different era—Mother of mercy, this is indeed the end of "The Sopranos."

It will not, of course, be the end of the cash flow to HBO, which, since the series premiered in January 1999, has made hundreds of millions of dollars cashing in on the popularity of Tony and the gang. It's an unprecedented amount of money for a cable network, especially one that sells no advertising.

First, there's the income from the untold number of subscribers who signed up just to watch Tony battle his evil mother, his scheming Uncle Junior and an assortment of Mafioso Machiavellis. Then there's the millions upon millions in revenue from the release of each season's DVD set. And finally there's the sale, two years ago, of syndication rights on basic cable to the A&E Network, which reportedly paid HBO at least $2.5 million per episode—for a total of about $215 million.

Not a bad haul—a lot more than the cash Tony has stashed away behind the walls of his lavish suburban New Jersey home, gained from multiple criminal schemes: from hauling garbage, from the construction business and, of course, from the nude dancers at his Bada Bing! Club. And it's all a part—an unpleasant part, perhaps, but an undeniable one—of the American Dream.

Many questions remain to be answered. Will Tony end his TV days sleeping with the fishes? Entombed in concrete? Or simply blown away? Will he join the witness protection program? Will he ascend to the role of godfather of godfathers, moving beyond his New Jersey fiefdom to control New York as well? Or will he stay just the way he is, walking down the driveway each morning in his bathrobe to pick up the daily newspaper, spending his life fucking anything that comes his way and fucking up anyone who gets in his way?

Will Carmela Soprano, Tony's willing wife, stick with her philandering husband and her deal with the devil, or will she give up the financially comfortable life of a mob wife for safer, if less green, pastures? Will Tony and Carmela's son, Anthony Jr., be true to his heritage and follow in his father's violent footsteps, or will he remain devoted to his new nuclear family: his Dominican girlfriend and her young son? Will Tony's daughter, Meadow, stay 3,000 miles away from her dad, out of harm's way in the bosom of Los Angeles, or will she be lured back to her father's den, and who knows what fate?

Will Christopher achieve his much-dreamed-of success in Hollywood, or will he instead succeed his uncle as top mob gun? Or will Tony, furious at Christopher's fling last year with a real estate agent played by Julianna Margulies, severely punish his straying kin? Will Christopher's fiancée, Adriana, long missing and presumed dead, return from the shadows? Or is she really dead and buried? And will Carmela finally discover the truth about Adriana's fate?

Will Dr. Melfi wind up getting to know Tony even better, on the couch or in bed? Or will the strong-willed shrink maintain her professional distance? What will become of Silvio Dante and Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, Tony's henchmen sidekicks? Will Silvio lose his hair? Will Paulie's walnuts finally get cracked? Will the legendary ducks of Season One return to Tony's swimming pool?

Chase, 61, rarely makes public appearances. But he showed up for the question-and-answer session, which was sponsored by the Center for Communication, an independent, nonprofit media forum, and moderated by David Schwartz, the chief curator of film and television at the Museum of the Moving Image. In front of an international audience of several hundred "Sopranos" fans, Chase, soft-spoken and at times even sounding a little shy, spent nearly an hour and a half telling his admirers about Tony's life, and about his own.

He talked about how "The Sopranos" came to be; the crucial nature of James Gandolfini's contribution to the character of Tony; the origins of Tony's abominable mother; why Tony is in therapy; what really happened to Adriana; what Chase thinks of Italian-American groups' criticism of the show; Chase's own future; and one crucial and unchangeable decision about Tony and his therapist that was made right from the start.

Chase refused, however, to offer even one word about The End, though he has often said that he made up his mind four years ago about what would happen in the final minutes. He did, however, intentionally or not, offer up what might be a clue.

Toward the end of the session, when asked how he managed to find a balance between the show's entertainment factor and the moral issues it engages, he said that for him, that really wasn't the issue. "The only thing I should tell you," he declared, is that "I don't want to do a morality show. I don't really want to say that crime does not pay. It would be very easy to say that. It's said all the time." Might this have been a hint about the show's denouement? We'll see. But he did repeat the same sentiment to Entertainment Weekly several months later, adding that his goal is "to show that there are certain ways that we all spend our lives, and that as adults, we decide our fate, we make our own bed, and we lie in it. [That] free will exists."

Chase admitted to his audience that he is sometimes troubled by the intensity of the violence in the series. "There's way more murder on our show" than in real life, he said. "How many gangland slayings have you read about in New York recently? None. It troubles me, but not on a moral level—on an artistic level. But then I think to myself, we're not doing a documentary. Mob movies, let's face it, have always been about machine guns."

And besides, he said, there has been less of that lately. At first, he was somewhat interested in the aesthetics of violence. But these days, fans are more likely to say things like, "What's going on with that show? Nobody got whacked." And that's just fine with Chase.

Many people, he said, think the show became popular because of all the violence, as well as the cursing and the naked dancers at the Bada Bing! Club. But that's a mistake, Chase said.

"One of the reasons the show was successful early on," he said, "is that you were being shown a look into something you had never seen: the domestic life of Northeast Italian-American organized crime. The Godfather was very operatic, and it was in the past. Goodfellas was the story of a crew, not the story of a guy's family. It was fantastic, but it was also in the past. When 'The Sopranos' first started, we were saying, 'This is what's happening now. This is the present. It's not a period piece.' People felt they were looking into the life of a secret society, which they had never seen before."

How, Chase was asked, are he and his writers able to create characters for whom we root so strongly, but who are at their cores so intensely brutal? Well, he said, it's not necessarily the writers who make it so. The real reason audiences have such affection for Tony, Chase said, "is because of the actor who plays that role." Had it been anyone else but James Gandolfini, "I don't think we would have had to worry about a second season."

One example of the superb nature of Gandolfini's craft, Chase said, was evident at the beginning of last season, when Tony is suddenly, and surprisingly, shot by his Uncle Junior, and is nearly killed. "People get shot all the time on television, and we never see how it hurts," Chase said. "When Jim got shot, it really felt like it hurt."

Chase said he actually learned much about the character of Tony just by watching Gandolfini during the filming of the pilot. "Tony was there on paper, but he brought a lot to it. There's something very charismatic about him, and hurting and sad. He also brings a tremendous volatility—not him personally, but as an actor. When that guy gets upset, you get out of the way."

Aspects of the other actors' personalities have also been incorporated into their roles over the years, Chase said. "The character of Paulie Walnuts is very much like Tony Sirico, in certain ways. Tony is germophobic. He had a close relationship with his mother."

Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's nephew, is one of the more violent of Chase's creations. But Michael Imperioli says that Christopher has changed over the years. "I think he's really evolved," Imperioli told Cigar Aficionado. "Which has been great for me as an actor. TV characters tend to stay the same, but not if the writer is David Chase."

In the final episodes, Christopher "is a lot more mature," Imperioli says. "He's been through a lot of experiences regarding life and love. He's risen up the ladder in the business and gained a lot more responsibility. He's had his heart broken. He's had to do things that have marked him as a man. He's kind of come full circle. He's always been pretty unstable, but he's making an attempt at stability. He has married someone not involved in the business, someone not crazy, not a party person. She's simply more of a traditional wife. He's had a kid. He wants to be a good dad. He's trying to make a go at outside success, trying to produce a movie and going about it in a way that has some potential to be a viable enterprise. He's trying to be as normal as possible, to be more even-keeled. He knows that he has a tendency to go off the rails and engage in destructive behavior, and I don't think he wants that in his life anymore."

But Imperioli admits that Christopher is still haunted by Adriana. "He still thinks about her. I think that's something that maybe dims as time goes by, but is never fully erased. It's always somewhere in his consciousness."

When it comes to all that violence—the show's, and Christopher's—Imperioli says it doesn't trouble him. "What would concern me is if we didn't show the violence," he says. "The danger is to sanitize these guys, to make them a little bit more palatable. I think if we did that, people might get the wrong idea about them. We show them for who they are, warts and all, and the public can make up their minds about them."

Imperioli, 40, grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, in a mostly Italian neighborhood near the Bronx. His dad, Dan, a bus driver, acted in community theater. At age 17, Imperioli started to study acting, a decision that led him to Off Broadway theater and a play called Aven' U Boys. And to movies, with roles in Goodfellas and five Spike Lee films, including, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers and Summer of Sam. 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.' "

Three years ago, Imperioli returned to his Off Broadway roots. He and his wife, Victoria, laid out more than $1 million of his hard-earned "Sopranos" loot to buy a four-story building on West 29th Street in Manhattan. On the ground floor, they built a 65-seat theater for Studio Dante, their not-for-profit theater company.

"It was my wife's idea," he says. "She said she knew that theater was something I really loved and that I would really be into it. Also, she's a designer, and she wanted to build a place. She also does sets and costumes."

She was right. They've put on seven plays; Imperioli has been involved in directing and producing, and in March, after "The Sopranos" wraps, he will be acting—in a play called Chicken, about cockfighting. "I play a guy who knows a lot about cockfighting and wants to make a big score in that world." Sort of like Christopher and Hollywood.

Imperioli has also gotten into music—he has a rock band called La Dolce Vita, and he plays guitar. "I've been doing it for a year, and I plan to keep on doing it."

Something else he plans to keep working at is writing. He co-wrote (and costarred in) Summer of Sam in 1999, and he has written five "Sopranos" episodes. "I don't know which direction I'll go in," he says, "but I'll be writing."

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."

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."

The travails of home provide one powerful reason why "The Sopranos" began with Tony reeling under a panic attack, sending him into one of the most fascinating patient-therapist exchanges since Freud dusted off his couch.

The other reason is his other "family." Like the father of an enormous, feuding brood, Tony must deal with the resentment and jealousy all around him. But unlike his blood family, the rage of this family, if unchecked, would not stop with Oedipal fantasies and a fistful of ProzacÉwhich is why Tony cannot reveal any hint of weakness. When his recovery from a gunshot wound leaves him looking weak, he responds by finding the strongest associate at his headquarters and administering a brutal beating.

So compelling has "The Sopranos" been that even before David Chase, the show's creator, announced the impending end of the series—sometime in June—a cottage industry has grown around The Question: what is the right ending for this saga?

There are those who argue for a reprieve, a dramatic pardon: Tony in a villa in Tuscany, reaping his ill-gotten gains. And it is true that not every mob protagonist dies violently. Don Vito Corleone dies of a heart attack while playing with his grandchild in The Godfather. Henry Hill, Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas, survives—mope-ishly to be sure—in the witness protection program.

But for me, Tony Soprano is doomed by the very size of his creator's achievement. If this is a genuine tragedy, Tony cannot escape his fate, any more than Hamlet and Ophelia could have run off and opened a bed-and-breakfast outside of Copenhagen. The question is not: "Will Tony die?" but "How—and at whose hands?"

For me, the answer is simple. While the hand that pulls the trigger, or tightens the wire, may come from a mobster—within or without his own circle—the impulse to pull that trigger must come from within his real family. If Tony's tragic flaw is his inability to escape the gravitational pull of his father's life, and the boundless anger and resentment of his mother, then his demise must come at the hands of someone closest to him. (It was, after all, the marital choices of the mothers of Oedipus and Hamlet that set them on their paths to their fates.)

How? There's a strong sentiment among Soprano-holics that Carmela will be Tony's undoing. She knows where the bodies are buried (and the cash as well), and it would not take many more of Tony's adulterous detours to end her patience—especially if she can end up with Tony's money. It's not that hard to imagine her enjoying the good life in Tuscany, perhaps with boy toy Furio at her side. But if David Chase is a creator of true wrath and vengeance, then Tony's fall must come at the hands of his children. Meadow Soprano—the lovely, overachieving embodiment of Tony's hope for something better— will be at the core. Perhaps she and her mother, in a grave act of betrayal, give up Tony to one of his gang rivals; perhaps (ˆ la Sonny Corleone) Tony is told that Meadow's life is in danger, and rushes into a trap, where one or more of his mob family is waiting to dispatch him. And A. J., the perpetual disappointment, has to have a role in Tony's downfall, perhaps unwittingly dispatching his father to his ultimate sit-down.

But maybe there's an ending even truer to what Tony's life has come to mean. In a final scene straight out of an Ellery Queen or "Thin Man" mystery, the FBI gathers all the principals in a room where the corpse of Tony Soprano lies. As the agents look from one highly motivated suspect to another—from restaurateur Artie Bucco and his mob-hating wife, Charmaine, to Bobby and Janice Soprano Baccalieri, with their smoldering anger at Tony's humiliations, to Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti to the just-paroled Johnny Sack—they realize that with so many suspects with so many good reasons to kill Tony, the case will simply never be solved.

And as they all leave the room, Carmela, Meadow and A. J. walk over to Dr. Melfi—and ask her if she does family therapy.

Mervyn Rothestein is an editor at The New York Times.