The Sopranos took small screen gangsters to a whole new level. Creator David Chase introduced the world to Tony Soprano, memorably played by the late James Gandolfini, and his network of family and friends.
Not everyone made it to the final episode. But they’ll always be remembered for their part in TV history.
What went down during the making of The Sopranos? Let’s go back to New Jersey and find out…
Chase’s original intention was a Tony Soprano movie. However, TV execs got wind and wanted to turn it into a series. The scenario was expanded from a gangster seeing a therapist to a gallery of loved ones and lethal associates.
The Sopranos started on HBO in 1999. It was, coincidentally, the same year Analyze This was released. Starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, the big-screen comedy focused on… a mob boss seeing a shrink.
Gandolfini was surprised to be cast
James Gandolfini was brought in after Susan Fitzgerald (casting director) saw him in True Romance (1993). The future leading man was skeptical, figuring they’d want “some good-looking guy, not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney.”
Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2012, the far-from-early riser revealed his frustration at being asked to have breakfast with Chase. “This guy’s going to be a pain in the ass,” Gandolfini thought.
The knockabout situations Tony and company found themselves in were more savage than slapstick. Or were they…?
Chase has noted the influence of The Three Stooges and other unlikely sources as reference points for The Sopranos. Things never strayed quite into Tom and Jerry territory, but a lot of characters went to the morgue.
Real-life dramatic influences
David Chase based key elements of The Sopranos on his own life. Like Tony, he had a difficult relationship with his mother. And like Tony, Chase visited a therapist.
As Screen Rant mentions, Chase did far more than produce and write. The hands-on showrunner even needed to know what was going on with the set design.
Nancy Marchand played Tony’s notorious mother Livia. Did you know their turbulent relationship nearly took a turn into Norman Bates territory?
Chase wanted Tony to bump off Marchand’s formidable matriarch. Ultimately, Livia’s life was extended because of the actress’s ill health. With Marchand dying of cancer, Chase gave her one last hurrah.
When the actress passed away in 2000, there were still scenes left to shoot. Mental Floss writes that her swansong was “cobbled together from old footage, recordings of her usual choruses, and special effects.”
David Chase has since spoken of his own relationship with his mother, and her view on his career. In 2019 he told The Guardian about something that happened at an airport: “her last words to me as she got on the plane were: ‘Don’t get too cocky.’”
It was a tough time to be sure but Chase is reflective about things. The same year, in an interview with Deadline, he stated: “I oversold how unhappy I had been as a child.”
Lorraine Bracco wanted to help Tony
Lorraine Bracco was a movie star, known for Goodfellas (1990) and other high-profile roles. The Sopranos team wanted her to play Tony’s wife Carmela.
But Bracco zeroed in on another character in the script – Dr. Jennifer Melfi. According to the actress, she “loved that I could play an educated Italian woman because I’ve never seen that before.”
The part was regarded as beneath a performer of her stature. Yet Bracco stuck to her guns and entered the psychiatrist’s office.
Silvio nearly got the top job
Musician and actor Steven Van Zandt is well-known for his work alongside Bruce Springsteen. But fans of The Sopranos know him best as hatchet man Silvio Dante. David Chase actually eyed Van Zandt for the role of Tony himself to begin with!
As things worked out, his charisma was channeled into the big cheese’s pistol-packing pal. Dante’s character was reportedly inspired by a short story. The author? One Steven Van Zandt.
The theme was inspired by a true crime
“Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)” opens each episode of The Sopranos. Written by Jake Black and Rob Spragg and performed through their band Alabama 3, it has its own crime-based connection.
In 1989 a British woman named Sara Thornton killed her abusive husband. At first she was jailed for murder, before the sentence was changed to manslaughter. Spragg saw the story and musical inspiration struck.
The other Tony… Tony Sirico
They don’t come more authentic than actor Tony Sirico, aka Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. Sirico entered showbusiness in his thirties, after serving a four-year sentence for crimes which included extortion and weapons possession. He’s been arrested 28 times in total!
If it wasn’t for a team of actors who worked in prison, Sirico’s life might have wound up very different. He still works today and has made various movies with Woody Allen.
James Gandolfini was generous
A pay dispute was cooled by Tony Soprano, when James Gandolfini reached into his own pocket to compensate disgruntled co-stars.
Keep ‘em guessing
Spoilers were kept to a minimum on set for The Sopranos. By shooting different versions of key scenes, Chase created a major smokescreen for scoop hunters.
One episode could have ended in tragedy, thanks to strong liquor. Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) mentioned a sequence during his Talking Sopranos podcast where he and Gandolfini got accidentally hammered on Wild Turkey.
Emerging from the trailer worse for wear, they had to act on a cliffside in the scene where throw toss gangster Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) over the edge. The production team’s solution to two sauced stars was drastic: “They took chains and wrapped them around our ankles,” said Imperioli, “and tied them to a tree and covered it with leaves.”
Connection with Seinfeld
It’s easy to make connections with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, and others featured prominently in that masterpiece.
What’s less of a walk in the park is linking The Sopranos to Seinfeld. Cheat Sheet had fun fleshing out the similarities. However, a more simple and direct connection exists between the two shows – showbiz exec Lloyd Braun.
Seinfeld co-creator Larry David named a classic character after his then-manager Braun… the same Lloyd Braun who later encouraged Chase to give The Sopranos a try on TV.
After The Sopranos
James Gandolfini passed away in 2013. Notable roles away from Tony include Big Dave Brewster in the Coen Brothers’ drama The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Albert in Enough Said (opposite Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 2013).
Steven Van Zandt starred as a New York gangster hiding out in Norway for the Netflix oddity Lilyhammer (2012-14).
The Sopranos writer Terence Winter created the epic period crime drama Boardwalk Empire. This starred Steve Buscemi, who’d played Tony Soprano’s cousin Tony Blundetto.
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Sopranos prequel The Many Saints Of Newark
Due out next month is the 1960s-set prequel The Many Saints Of Newark. Michael Gandolfini follows in his father’s footsteps as Tony Soprano.
Focusing on the development of young Tony and racially-charged riots in Jersey, the movie features Vera Farmiga as Livia and Ray Liotta as Aldo Moltisanti. Liotta previously turned down a role in The Sopranos TV show.