‘The Sopranos’ 20th Anniversary Look Back: Part II

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Despite David Chase’s feeling that The Sopranos would be one and done, the only place the show was going was up. It was a bona fide sensation, winning four of the 16 Emmy nominations it received in 1999, including one for Best Writing and the first of three Emmys he would win for the show. After a spectacular Season One climax in which Tony Soprano’s Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) conspired to murder him, the show had to find a new course for Season 2. For one thing, Marchand’s health was failing.

DEADLINE: Anyone who crossed Tony Soprano usually died. Why weren’t there death scenes for Tony’s Uncle Junior and Livia?

DAVID CHASE: These are hard questions for me to answer. Just the scene of him driving in the car with Livia, the interplay between the two of them, it was really like watching one of my aunts and uncles driving together. Real Italians. Then, Nancy was sick, with emphysema, I think, and lung cancer, I believe. She was coughing when she came up the stairs for the audition, but she got worse. Anyway. The first season was over, and I didn’t expect there to be another season. I thought that was the end of it, and she was so good, I left her alive, just in case, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. Then she came to me and said, “David just let me work.” There was really no reason for her to be in the second season because they were so disinfected from each other, but we invented a role for her and she went ahead and did it.

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DEADLINE: Had she not been sick, how would the mother-son storyline have evolved?

CHASE: How she would have related to Tony, I don’t know. I had a plan that he was going to go on trial for stolen airline tickets and she was going to testify against him. So he would have had to be nice to his mother again. I was going to try to take it down that path, but that wouldn’t have been right. She would’ve been there in some different way, but then she died. She worked right up until she passed, and then we eased her into a death scene using CGI. It was in the early stages of that stuff, and it wasn’t completely successful. A lot of people thought it was an insane move or a course move. A lot of people didn’t like it, thought it was insensitive and some people thought it was opportunistic, or just badly done. I wish it had been better done but I thought we were…I didn’t think it was opportunistic. I mean, that’s the way she wanted to go out, acting in a role.

DEADLINE: Steven Van Zandt, you said you had been out of work as a musician and you were finding your footing as an actor, but just when you thought you were out, they brought you back in?

STEVEN VAN ZANDT: As I was growing in the role and getting my bearings, it helped that I was a big fan of the genre and had read every book and seen every movie going all the way back to the earliest ones, in that genre. I also grew up in an area where those guys were around or at least wannabes were around and you could see that lifestyle quite regularly, so it wasn’t that foreign to me. I just added the idea of him growing up with Tony Soprano, being his best friend, being the only guy on the show that did not want to be the boss, who was always watching Tony’s back. I really used my relationship with Bruce Springsteen really to kind of understand the dynamics that happens between a soldier and a leader.

Steven Van Zandt Silvio Dante Sopranos

Steven Van Zandt as Silvio Dante

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DEADLINE: What parallels were there between Silvio and Miami Steve? You can see the affection between the two of you onstage, and in the stories Bruce tells between songs about the old days.

VAN ZANDT: The common dynamic is, as a best friend you have an obligation to tell the truth and you’ve got to know when to do that and how to do that, and it’s never going to be easy when it’s bad news. But once in a while, hopefully rarely, but once in a while you’ve got to be the one to bring the bad news because nobody else is going to do it, so you’re obligated. That’s your responsibility as a best friend. Sometimes they will get mad at you and then, as happened on the show, you see occasionally Jimmy will be screaming at me over something and that’s how it is in real life.

It’s just one of those things that goes with that job, that relationship, in being the only one who’s not afraid of the boss because you grew up together and that puts you in a special category that is very, very useful and very helpful to that boss whether they like it or not. No boss likes to hear bad news or hear they made a mistake. You can’t do it every day or even that often, but when it’s really, really important, you pick your moment and you’ve got to take the consequences and you just have to live with that. That’s the job. And ironically, right after we filmed, Bruce decides to put the band back together that same year.

So after 18 years, now that I’ve got a new career finally, he decides to tour. I was really torn. Should I do it or not? Because I really did enjoy this new career as an actor, but I also felt we’ve got some unfinished business with the E Street Band and so I’m going to try and work out both things. I did that and I’m happy I did, but it did cost me.

DEADLINE: What was the cost?

VAN ZANDT: It cost me evolving in this new career. I would have certainly wanted to become one of the writers and maybe one of the directors, which I ended up doing on Lilyhammer. I took all that knowledge I learned on The Sopranos and used it on Lilyhammer, but if I had done nothing but acting I probably would have been able to by the end of The Sopranos maybe become one of the writers or directors myself. That’s where I really wanted to go. Fortunately David Chase was enough of a fan that he booked my scenes on days off from the tour. I had probably a smaller part on the show than I would have had, had I not been touring, but in the end I was OK with that and I was OK with at least being there. I was an important character and I may not have had a whole lot of lines, but the lines I had were good and were important and the role was important enough that it could be smallish but still effective.

DEADLINE: Steve Schirripa, you became one of the new core players around Season 2, first as Uncle Junior’s caretaker Bobby Baccalieri and eventually Tony’s soldier who married his sister Janice. How did this happen?

Steven Schirripa Dominic Chianese
Barry Wetcher/HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

STEVE SCHIRRIPA: I was an entertainment director at the Riviera in Las Vegas and a maître d′, and acting was a hobby. I started getting things, and I was being hip-pocketed by an agent and asked him to get me an audition. It was that first scene in the doctor’s office, where Junior tells that joke about the eye doctor, the Chinese patient and the cataracts. I come to New York for a wedding, and this was June 1999 and the first season was over and they hadn’t gotten the Emmy nominations yet so it hadn’t really exploded. I audition for Georgianne Walken for the role of the FBI agent Skip Lipari (the liaison to Vincent Pastore’s Big Pussy). She said if I can get David to see you would you come back? First of all,  I don’t even know who the f*ck David is. When I get the call to come back, I say, I’m not going to get it and I have to put out all this money to fly there and put myself up. My wife is the one who pushed me. I go to Silvercup, and see all these faces I recognize from TV and later get the call I beat out 100 people. But I had to fly myself out the first year, put myself up and it cost me 24 grand to make 22 grand. You first see Baccala in the second episode of the second season and after six episodes, the following season HBO moved me and my family back here.

The first episodes included Burt Young playing my dad, and then the scene with Silvio, Paulie, Big Pussy and Tony Soprano, where I am getting bawled out at the pork store. I was too naive to be nervous, and I wore a fat suit through two seasons before maybe I got fat enough on my own and David said I didn’t need it anymore.

DEADLINE: Bobby’s girth became a running joke in the early episodes…

SCHIRRIPA: When I started, I’d read the scripts and say to my wife, there’s all these fat jokes, ‘cannoli with legs,’ and ‘you should start to really consider eating salads.’ And I’m going, I’m not that much fatter than Tony Soprano, in real life. I kind of thought for a second maybe they made a mistake. And then they asked me to come a few days earlier to Silvercup with the costume designer, Juliette Polcsa, trying on all these fat suits. At first they gave me a fake ass, and a fake stomach, and I’m parading in front of David Chase, in my underwear, with a fat suit on.

The Writer’s Voice

David Chase

Chase

Carolyn Contino/BEI/Shutterstock

DEADLINE: Beyond the scenes of violence, family angst and panic attacks, the writing on The Sopranos was so quirky and surprising, with humor and a mix of pop culture, mob genre references. Why did you use so many subplots that dealt with Hollywood? Was it sly humor about the industry you grew up in?

CHASE: Maybe the opposite. In Hollywood you would think given the stakes there’d be a fist fight once in a while, but nothing. People just don’t tell you face to face what they’re thinking, that’s the way I look at it anyway. I can remember some of the story lines, like the one where Christopher goes out to Hollywood to convince Ben Kingsley to do a movie, and he learns about all that swag. And he ends up punching Lauren Bacall. What was I trying to say about all that? Why did I do that? Maybe it just two groups of sociopaths meeting. I don’t know.

DEADLINE: What was the key to being a successful writer on The Sopranos?

CHASE: They had to understand the backward…no, backward is not the right word. They had to understand that the mob mentality is through the looking glass. When they say X, they mean Y. When they say black, they mean white, and a lot of people just don’t understand if they apply their own standards. What would I do in this situation? That’s not what a mobster would do. They’re constantly looking for openings and ways to screw somebody.

DEADLINE: Were you open to ad libbing?

CHASE: There was no line changing on that show. There was no improvisation at all. You just can’t do a TV show that way, where show after show actors can say whatever they want.

DEADLINE: So, you were Moses coming down the mountain with words etched in stone?

CHASE: I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. I mean, we made changes. Sometimes people complained about something, but again, we were really lucky, because Jim was the least self-protective actor I’ve ever met.

MATTHEW WEINER: I didn’t start as a writer until the fifth season of the show. I had written the Mad Men pilot and sent David the spec as a writing sample and got the job. My joke became that it was like my old jobs, where I sat in a room full of writers talking about The Sopranos. By the college episode in the first season, I was just the biggest fan. You saw a commitment to telling the truth about human behavior. Tony’s daughter knows he’s a criminal, and then he actually kills someone, and he’s a criminal and homicidal. But he’s also dealing with his family, and the other story in there is about Carmela and Father Phil almost having this relationship, which ends badly also.

I literally was talking out loud at the TV while I was watching it, saying, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this.’ Because all of the rules in television were about protecting the main character and their “likeability,” and that crime doesn’t pay. It’s doctors and lawyers who really care, and it’s not showing real life, like mini malls, and the giant cars we were driving, and how hard it is with kids. And the serial nature was not part of TV at that time because syndication was the main goal and the feeling was, nobody would watch every episode of anything, so you weren’t really allowed to have a continuing storyline. ER didn’t syndicate as well as they hoped because of that. And still, I’d be watching it, and think, did I miss an episode? Because they would just start wherever they were, like the characters had a life even when we weren’t there.

Matt Weiner Terence Winter

Matt Weiner, left, and Terry Winter, 1997

Dave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock

My favorite was the line that Terry Winter wrote, where Christopher is coming in and Tony pulls him aside to talk about a problem. Christopher says, ‘Is this about the Easter baskets?’ And Tony just looks at him, and is like, I don’t want to know about that. Whatever it is, it’s just my favorite kind of line because it’s basically suggesting a whole story that something terrible happened, involving Easter baskets. What could that possibly be? Terry is great at that and it was something I aspired to be able to do.

DEADLINE: Terry Winter, whether it’s the Bobby Baccala observation in a geopolitical discussion that “Quasimodo predicted all that,”  when he means Nostradamus, what was the formula for these random great lines?

Terence Winter

Winter

Gregory Pace/Shutterstock

TERENCE WINTER: Everybody who wrote on the show could write for every character very well, David first and foremost. Quasimodo was in his first draft of that script, I remember. That was funny, probably my favorite exchange in the entire series. Jim and Bobby Baccalieri sitting at that diner. I remember being there when we shot it, and I had to walk outside because I just couldn’t control myself from laughing. We’d get an outline, which we generally all did together in a room with David’s direction. People would sometimes throw out lines of dialogue, but that was rare. The outlines were pretty sparse, and then somebody would go off and write the script themselves, either David, or me, or Matt Weiner, or Robin Green, or Mitch Burgess, or whoever it may be. Very often those lines belonged to whoever wrote the script, and depending on how much work he felt the script needed, David would take a pass himself or ask me or Matt to add things.

DEADLINE: Particularly before his character fell into dementia, Dominic Chianese’s Uncle Junior character had some of the best lines. “I got the Feds so far up my ass I can taste the Brylcreem.” That might not even be the best one.

WINTER: For me, the two best were Uncle Junior and Christopher. Uncle Junior because he could really get away with saying anything. He was so outlandish and spoke his mind so directly that you could put words in his mouth that wouldn’t make sense coming out of any other character. The other thing with him is, because he was older, he would use outmoded expressions, so you could use language that you wouldn’t get from a younger person. It got to the point where Uncle Junior became so solid as a character, people understood him so well and knew what a crank he was. I remember at one of our premieres, it might’ve been our Season 5 premiere, I am watching it in a room full of people at Radio City. Uncle Junior enters the scene apropos of nothing and just walks into the room and says, “Well, I’ve f*cking had it,” and the audience howled. They don’t even know what he’s talking about, and it didn’t even matter what he was talking about because he’s such a curmudgeon that him complaining about anything just automatically became funny. That was really a testament to Dominic and how well people knew him.

Dominic Chianese

Chianese

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DOMINIC CHIANESE: I realized I was typecast because of my name and the fact that I did do The Godfather 2 and played a few other authority figures, like doctors and lawyers. Even though I was soft spoken, I was still authoritative in some way. And right in the middle of Sopranos, I realized that that’s what I was born to be doing. And they wrote the funniest lines, many for me. We had the readings, Thursday nights usually, and whenever we read you had to have everybody around. People were cracking up because they knew they were going to get Uncle Junior’s point of view on everything. Which proves that he’s as funny an old guy as he is narrow minded. His look was kind of funny, too, with the glasses and everything. Pass the red peppers, that was my favorite. Nobody remembers what that meant but I know where. What David wrote for Uncle Junior, every one of those lines are precious to me, but I think what I liked most was David’s sense of humor, especially with what Italian culture. Like, for example, pass the red peppers. That’s when I was in bed with Roberta, and what made it funny was it was a non sequitur. She said something and I told her, pass the red peppers. I didn’t want to talk anymore about the lovemaking, capiche?

WINTER: Christopher was funny because here’s a guy who thinks he’s smart and he’s really stupid, and you could put things in his mouth that were…he would always misconstrue sayings. I remember I wrote a line where he wanted to say if you wanted to get good at something you needed to start doing something. Instead of saying I’ve got to get my feet wet, or I need to cut my teeth, he says, “I have to get my teeth wet,’ mixing those two sayings together. You can get away with stuff with Christopher. ‘He took off like a bat on a hill.’ That would only work with Christopher, so those are my two favorites.

DEADLINE: Who came up with Before and Way Before?

WINTER: I want to say that was Frank Renzulli.

DEADLINE: And when Tony confronts Richie Aprile, played by David Prova,l and responds to his murderous glare by saying, “Don’t give me them Manson lamps”?

WINTER: I think it was David, but I’m not positive.

DEADLINE: Your favorite line you put in a mobster mouth?

WINTER: I guess it has to be the interior decorator line in the Pine Barrens episode.

DEADLINE: When Christopher and Paulie got lost in the snowy woods trying to dump the body of a Russian they thought they murdered, but who wasn’t dead and fled on foot.

WINTER: That just flowed, and it was a good example of Christopher’s dialogue. I said OK, how would Paulie Walnuts and Christopher interpret a conversation, when Tony was breaking up on the phone and they could barely hear him and didn’t know what he was talking about when he said the guy was with the Interior Ministry. The word interior, the only thing that would make sense to Paulie would be interior decorator, and then Chris processes that information, having just seen the guy’s apartment. And Chechen rebels, they didn’t know what Tony was talking about.

DEADLINE: Was there a formula for how the pop culture and mob movie references, from the quoting of lines in The Godfather to a snippet of Little Miss Sunshine, or showing The Departed soundtrack right before Christopher’s death scene? How were they chosen?

WINTER: It was just what felt real. You don’t have to be a mob guy even to just continually reference the world around us in pop culture, TV shows. It’s just part of the fabric of daily conversation, and is for those guys too. We knew from guys we knew, how much the revered movies like The Godfather and the whole Scorsese canon and all that stuff, that they referenced it all the time. One of my favorite snippets of an article I read once was that FBI had a wiretap on some mob family, having a sit down, and they actually were playing The Godfather theme in the background. During an actual mob meeting! And you’re like God, they really see this as their own soundtrack.

I would just go for it. Basically, Tony Soprano was exactly my age when I wrote the show. So growing up in the same years I did, he would reference the same stuff I watched on TV. So there’s a lot of Honeymooners references. If you remember growing up in New York, Channel 11 used to run The Honeymooners every night and Tony probably watched that too, and Abbott and Costello, Three Stooges, and everything in between. And then there was the topical stuff, which was one of my favorite things about David. Somebody said, well, there’s only going to be two people out there who are going to get this joke, David said, yeah those are the two people we’re writing for. I said, wow, that’s great, because it’s the kind of stuff if you get it, you’ll fall out of your chair. If you don’t get it you’ll just…it’ll just sort of go by, you won’t really understand what they’re saying. But for the people who did understand? I think I wrote a scene when Furio was making buffalo mozzarella and he walked in wearing an apron. And I think Paulie Walnuts says, “Oh! Chef of the future,” which is from The Honeymooners. Furio grew up in Italy and has no idea what he’s talking about, but the other guys and anybody who has seen a Honeymooners episode understands.

DEADLINE: Speaking of inside jokes, who wrote that one where the column from the Daily News gossip who leaked plot details was tucked into the crack of that homeless person?

WINTER: Yeah, I wrote that episode, but I think that might have been Mr. Chase’s idea.

WEINER: The best lines in my shows are…well they’re all David’s shows, but if I get patted on the back for lines, they were usually written by David, whose hand was on everything. I remember a line, when Tony and Carmela are splitting up, and she says that she’s going to get a lawyer, she wants what she’s entitled to. And Tony said something like, “You walk around in that mansion with your diamond rings and your 300-dollar shoes, and…” basically it ends with, you’re entitled to shit. It’s just a very aggressive divorce moment for them, and I found that anything you got to write for Carmela…like a scene I worked on in one of my episodes where she goes to see Melfi when Tony’s in the hospital, and she talks about Tony’s first date, that he gave her father a drill. And she said, and behind it was somebody with a broken arm or worse, something like that. I don’t think people realize. David is a comedy writer, so any time you could get away with a joke that might not be that funny on the page, but there’s so much character, you know, that’s what I loved most. Story, character, and a laugh that’s real.

DEADLINE: Sounds challenging, trying to work around such a strong creator voice.

WEINER: I don’t even know if people can understand this because it sounds very old fashioned, but there’s no other way to work. It was an extremely defined hierarchy, but also casual. A lot of it was Terry and I, and others, having a conversation and David is there on the couch, sort of ruminating on his own, and then he would just kind of get up and magically spit out a story onto the board. And then we would work on that. He came in with a story for Tony, a personal story, a business story, all of these other things, and we would basically try to solve a lot of problems, but in the end, you’re trying to get in his mind. Your job is to keep giving ideas that he rejects, and you also don’t want to talk so much that he can’t think. So compared to a comedy room, it was very quiet. It was hours of eating lunch, laughing, talking about the newspaper, talking about the story, and then, you know, solving a problem that seems completely unsolvable. In my mind, you were living in David’s head, and he make the decisions, and he came up with most of the ideas, as far as I could tell, but not all of them. You express your opinion, you’re not a yes-man. But there would be David on that couch because he had a bad back, hand over his eyes, and suddenly he would get up and just get up and start writing on the board, literally 14 beats for a story.

I’ll tell you this. I had written a Mad Men pilot right around the time The Sopranos went on the air. I wrote the second episode seven years later after being on The Sopranos for four and a half years for 30 episodes. Mad Men wouldn’t have amounted to much had I not been in that room…I learned to trust my own taste, because David thought I had good taste, and also to trust intuition to be non-formulaic. To not lean on something you’ve seen before, that worked. It’s very unusual to be in a commercial creative environment where your boss says, basically, if we understand this and like it, then the audience will too. It’s usually the other way around where they’re like, what does the audience like? Don’t people usually like this? And trying to guess and reverse engineer it and it becomes formulaic. If nothing else, here you can walk away saying, well, I made a show that I would want to watch. That was new for me.

WINTER: Yeah, I could say the same thing about Boardwalk Empire. I learned everything I know about being a show runner from sitting next to David for eight years, literally. How to put together a crew, how to really write authentically. One of the greatest things about writing on The Sopranos, for me, and I think one of the reasons it resonated so powerfully, was that these really felt like real people. They spoke the way people really speak. They lie to each other, they speak in half sentences, they very rarely say what they mean. Most network writing is just really fast falls down the middle, straight exposition. Set up and pay off. Sopranos wasn’t like that all. I had come onto the show right out of a comedy and one of the first notes David ever gave me, he said, stop writing jokes. I said, what do you mean? He goes, whether you know it or not, you’re writing lines that are set up to be funny. He said, just trust that these people are funny naturally. Don’t force the writing, don’t force the comedy. It will be there. He was absolutely right. These characters were so absurd, just the way they normally are. You didn’t have to tweak anything, you just let them be themselves. So yeah, everything I learned about trusting your instincts was him. David used to always say, throw out your first five ideas. Push harder. Look for something different.

Edie Falco

Falco

Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

EDIE FALCO: Early on, there there were times when I didn’t entirely understand what an episode was “about,” but I developed an understanding and trust that David and the other writers did. They did know, and that made it safe for me to do my job as explained to me, which is to portray this woman. I never didn’t know how to portray Carmela in a certain situation, but not how it fit into the larger picture. I came to realize there was something much bigger at play and that very bright people were at the helm. It was a trust in my co-workers I have never had before, nor since, that they had their eye on the larger picture and so I didn’t feel obligated to, and it just became one of the biggest pleasures, knowing you’re a part of something so freaking smart and so big, but you could just do your part and you trust it will fit into the whole.

CHIANESE: The line that got me was where Jimmy says to Junior, “Don’t you love me?” I just couldn’t even answer him, I was so choked up. That was the heart of their conflicted relationship, right there. I loved him and at the same time hated him for what he was doing to me. Junior was out of it by then, so I don’t remember if he could say what my heart felt. But that was a great moment for me. When I saw it, no lie, I really got choked up.

About That Russian Interior Decorator, And Other Loose Ends

DEADLINE: David, another thing your show featured was random dream sequences that were never explained. Where most TV shows tied up every loose end, you had plot points that became dead ends.

CHASE: I didn’t look at them as dead ends. I looked at it as, the story’s over. The story’s been told.

DEADLINE: So what did happen to that Russian interior decorator who killed all those Czechoslovokians and eluded Christopher and Paulie in the snow?

CHASE: What do I think happened to the Russian? I think he suffered severe brain damage and they sent him back to Russia. Where the medicine is great.

MORE ON ‘THE SOPRANOS’ COMING TOMORROW…

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