Settling into a seat at a theater in New York City’s Chelsea district last night, Sopranos creator David Chase was asked how he felt about celebrating the show’s 20th anniversary. “Confused,” he murmured, after a pause. “I never expected this to happen.”
But two decades after it premiered, the mythology and power of The Sopranos remains. To mark that milestone and weigh the series’ impact and legacy, Chase, along with many of the surviving actors and alumni like producer-writer Matthew Weiner, assembled for “Woke Up This Morning,” a group public conversation. James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in 2013 at 51, was sorely missed, but nearly every other major cast member and character (Big Pussy! Artie Bucco! Gloria! Uncle Junior!) was in the house for the discussion, moderated by TV critic and longtime Sopranos chronicler Matt Zoller Seitz. (Seitz and Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall are also co-authors of the just-published The Sopranos Sessions.) A few things we learned during the nearly two-hour event:
Few predicted the show would make it past one season.
Chase acknowledged he wasn’t sure anyone would understand or take to The Sopranos when it debuted, which Falco backed up, recalling what he said to her soon after shooting began: “No one’s ever gonna watch this thing.” Falco says Gandolfini was equally taken aback. When news of the show’s second-season renewal was announced, she recalled him saying to her, with a sigh, “Well, I guess we gotta do it again.” Weiner, who joined the show as a writer and producer for its fifth season, said he had to remind Chase that the show was successful even that far into its run: “I said, ‘David, it’s everywhere! This is a cultural event!’ But there was an underdog mentality.”
Steve Van Zandt accidentally dissed Chase’s mother during his audition.
Chase had the idea of casting Van Zandt after he saw the E Streeter induct the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997; as Chase told RS in 2009, “He was so talented and funny, and he had the whole Jersey thing. It felt right.” During the group chat, Van Zandt, knowing the beloved role Italian mothers have in families, added he wasn’t sure the Olivia-Tony storyline made sense: “I said, ‘I don’t think this mother idea is gonna work,’” he recalled. “David looked at me and said, ‘That’s my mother.’ I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t get this gig.’” Chase, who said he actually considered Van Zandt for the Tony role, hired him anyway. (It worked: As the actors walked into the theater to take their seats, Van Zandt received the most applause, with Falco a close second.)
On set, Falco and Gandolfini stayed in character.
Like everyone in the cast, Falco spoke admiringly of Gandolfini and his skills. (Lorraine Bracco mentioned that during Tony and Dr. Melfi’s therapy sessions, she would be so engrossed watching Gandolfini’s monologues that she would occasionally space on her follow-up lines.) On the set, Falco admitted she and Gandolfini were not “particularly close” and didn’t hang out, noting that she didn’t know much at all his personal life. The most time they spent together was on the set, where she always saw him as Tony.
Gandolfini had a mischievous sense of humor.
Recalling his first day on the set, in a Jersey diner, Weiner (who famously went on to create Mad Men) said the actor announced he wanted to add a last-minute change: Tony would start singing along with a tune on the diner jukebox. Weiner freaked out and immediately called Chase, only to learn that Gandolfini was just busting his chops. “Jim fucked with me,” Weiner recalled with a laugh.
At least one cast member lobbied not to be whacked.
Michael Imperioli (Christopher Molisanti) brought up a recurring Sopranos ritual — taking the cast member whose character was just offed out to dinner in Little Italy. Still, not every actor was thrilled at the very likely prospect that he or she may be written out of the show. Producer Terence Winter recalled what Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) said to him, in a perfectly Paulie way: “If I fucking die, you fucking die.” Seated right before Winter, Sirico just smiled and did not deny the story.
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