An American Family
Ten years ago, HBO bought a pilot script for a show that no one—not creator David Chase, lead actor James Gandolfini, or any of the original cast—thought would ever get made. Today, The Sopranos is perhaps the greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day, a fearless series that has transformed television. With the story of Tony Soprano, mobster in midlife crisis, just nine episodes from a finale, the players behind the phenomenon tell how it all went down.
by Peter Biskind April 2007
To paraphrase the timeless words of Edward G. Robinson's Rico in Little Caesar, "Is this the end of Tony?" Well, that wouldn't be for me to say, and in any case, I don't know, what with plot points guarded as fiercely as the crown jewels. What does appear to be certain, however, is that the upcoming nine episodes, technically the second half of the show's sixth season, will finally spell the end of The Sopranos, 10 years after HBO bought the script for the pilot. This is a fact of life, the 800-pound gorilla that nobody on the show, the interiors of which are shot at Silvercup Studios, a former bread bakery in Long Island City, wants to acknowledge. Though it feels like just another day on the set as cast and crew work on a domestic scene in Janice Soprano's kitchen, the actors might as well be wearing sandwich boards reading, the end is nigh.
For most of them, it's been an unprecedented, nearly decade-long marriage to the show, which has meant a ready-made, close-knit surrogate family of artistic collaborators, not to mention a steady paycheck. And most of them aren't quite ready to hit the pavement. Says Tony Sirico, who plays Soprano capo Paulie Walnuts, "For the last three months now we've been doing a lot of reminiscing. We bring up the show ending, and then we stop right away, because we want to make believe that it's not happening. I want to block it out of my head. I'm heartbroken." According to Edie Falco, who plays Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, "There are actors here who will never get an opportunity like this again. Having gotten scripts while we've been working on this, there's just nothing out there that's interesting. It scares the hell out of me." Little Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and maestro of his own radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage, had never acted before he landed the part of Tony's consigliere, Silvio Dante. Sighing, he says, "There's a fair chance I'll never act again."
The one exception to the pervasive melancholy is James Gandolfini himself, the actor who turned Tony Soprano into the Homer Simpson of live-action television, transformed the Jersey Mob boss into one of the great screen characters by investing him with an unprecedented physicality—his bulk, his 12 o'clock shadow, his labored breathing, even, which makes him sound just short of tubercular. No one will ever forget Tony's graceless shuffle down his driveway every morning to pick up the Newark Star-Ledger, or the slovenly way he bellies up to the kitchen counter to guzzle O.J. out of the container. At the same time, alongside Tony's signature menace, the actor gives him a winning sweetness, and is able to effortlessly slide from one to the other and back again, so that these traits don't seem like contradictions, but rather the fluid flow of personality. Gandolfini has started his own production company and has a deal to develop material for HBO. He's had enough of Tony. "It's been a great opportunity, but I don't have much trepidation about it ending. I think it's more than time. Part of the fun of acting is the research, finding out about other people. As much as I've explored this guy, I don't know what else to really do with him. I've been in one place for 10 years. That's enough. It's time for me to do other things."
Gandolfini might be the only person in America who feels that way. His performance helped transform HBO from a fights-and-features TV footnote into the Rolls-Royce of pay cable, a critical and commercial behemoth whose impact has recast American television—almost, or at least occasionally—into a medium for adults. In our culture of hype, the currency of praise has been so de-valued that no one credits it, even when deserved. The truth is, The Sopranos, whether in one-hour shots, 13-hour seasonal chunks, or the 86-hour long-form marathon—however you want to take it—is one of the masterpieces of American popular culture, on a par with the first two Godfathers, Mean Streets, and GoodFellas—the classics of Mob cinema—or even European epics such as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento, or, as the late New York Times critic Vincent Canby first claimed, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's monumental 15½-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, all of which The Sopranos dwarfs in terms of length, if not scope. New York's Museum of Modern Art honored The Sopranos in February 2001, when the senior film curator, Laurence Kardish, showed the first two seasons, along with a couple of films that influenced the show—including a Laurel and Hardy picture, Saps at Sea. This was the first time an American dramatic series for television had been shown at the museum. Kardish calls the show "an extraordinary blend of great psychological insight and social cartography, zany as well as poignant and resonant." No less an authority than Norman Mailer recently gave The Sopranos high praise indeed when he favorably compared the depth of its characterizations to that achieved in novels.
But, despite its length, the series has never been epic television, never a Band of Brothers or even a Rome, if "epic" is synonymous with grand historical sweep. In fact, it is something much more unique: "personal" television writ large, television drawn from the experiences and sensibility of a small crew of writers, and, in particular, the man who created it and is now shutting it down despite keening and teeth gnashing from HBO, which would undoubtedly prefer that the show go on forever. That man, one of the few authentic auteurs television has produced, is David Chase.
Chase, 61, is about six feet tall, slender, with thinning hair and a saturnine expression that matches a dark, savage sense of humor. He's Italian (the family name was DeCesare), but he's not given to the emotional flamboyance that we associate with Italians—and which is very much on display in the show—perhaps because he was raised as a Protestant. He's a watchful man, plays his cards close to the vest, lives very much in his head, listens as much as he speaks, except for abrupt and frequent explosions of laughter. Though he commands an enterprise that employs upwards of 300 people, he is not a cheerleader in the conventional sense. He is prone, during writers' meetings, to say things such as "God, I'm so fucking depressed. I hate this. I can't do another one." As executive producer Ilene S. Landress puts it, "If you're looking for a glass-half-full person, he's not it. The scary part is sometimes you think you're giving him good news and he turns it into bad news." Van Zandt describes Chase as a tortured soul. "Look at the show," the actor says, smiling. "He's not moody—he's always in a bad mood. He's very consistent." There are bits and pieces of Chase in many of the show's characters, but if he resembles any of them, it's probably Johnny Sack, the boss of the New York family who conducts himself with the aplomb of a dyspeptic chess master.
We're sitting together in the back of a car on a tour of New Jersey, where Chase grew up and where his show unfolds, having headed out of New York through the Lincoln Tunnel. The signs and sights flash by as they do in the show's opening-credits sequence, and I can almost hear the music that accompanies it as Chase points out the window to an area in Newark where his mother grew up, since obliterated by development. "That was the original Little Italy," he says. "The buildings were torn down, and large projects were built. And then those were torn down, and these smaller ones were built." Most of the places he remembers aren't there anymore, victims of relentless change. You can't go home again.
New Jersey is more than just the show's backdrop. The Sopranos is about guys who make their living on the wrong side of the Hudson River in Jersey's gray flatlands, skimming city contracts, hijacking semis full of booze or cigarettes, betting on sports, or feigning nine-to-five regularity in "waste management." Its Broadway is Bloomfield Avenue, a thoroughfare that runs from downtown Newark out to the nouveau suburbs, lined, for much of its length, with strip malls, single-story working-class bars, nail parlors, and Italian restaurants with names like Roma or DaVinci's, whose walls are hung with black velvet paintings. Which is to say, Jersey is not New York, and, despite Tony's robust cash flow and the big house on the cul-de-sac in North Caldwell, The Sopranos is more GoodFellas than Godfather; it's the Mob in the era of diminished expectations, when, as Tony points out, the big money goes to Enron. Good-bye, cashmere overcoats; hello, grungy bathrobes. North Jersey is the place that colors the fears and hopes of Chase's characters; it's the place from which he fled, but which—to everyone's surprise, including his own—proved fertile ground for his powers of invention.
A severely truncated version of Chase's career goes like this: When the idea for The Sopranos finally floated to the surface, he had been laboring in the vineyards of network television for some 20 years. He had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, and had grown up with the great films of that era, particularly those of Federico Fellini. He desperately wanted to write features. Television was a byway he fell into when, after graduating from film school, at Stanford, in 1971, he was cast onto the mean streets of Hollywood. He made his way through several unmemorable TV shows while laboring over feature scripts on the side, none of which sold. "I was learning writing," he says. "I didn't really know about story. To me, 8½ was a great story."
Chase finally clambered out of the river of sewage that made up the nightly network lineup in those days and jumped into the big time when, ironically, he became a writer on the heavily plotted series The Rockford Files, where he worked happily for more than four years, until 1980. He wrote a movie of the week about teenage runaways from Minnesota who become hookers in Manhattan, which earned him an Emmy. Still, he had, as he puts it, a "reputation for being 'too dark.' That's the term people out there like—I don't know what it means. It probably means 'too complicated.' Or it could mean 'too dark.'" Chase laughs. Says Lawrence Konner, an old friend who wrote three episodes of The Sopranos during the great third and fourth seasons, "David's reputation inside the TV industry was 'Good writer, good manager, but what's going on in his brain we don't want to be part of.'" Chase reciprocated. "I felt I was out of step with everything," he says. "I remember seeing Pretty Woman on an airplane. Everybody was laughing their heads off. 'Ho-ho-ho!' It wasn't funny to me, it wasn't dramatic—it wasn't anything. I thought, Why don't I just open the door and jump out?"
Chase bounced from development deal to development deal until, in 1993, he ended up, almost in spite of himself, in charge of a high-profile hit, Northern Exposure. There's a lot of money to be made in television, and by every standard but his own, he was successful. He and his family had a home in Santa Monica Canyon. Chase would come back from work, plop down on the floor, and play Barbies with his daughter Michele. But, according to Konner, "he turned it into Perp-Walk Barbie—District Attorney Barbie, Parole Officer Barbie.… I think he is a little obsessed with law and order. I think he gets angrier than most of us at the miscarriage of justice, at the injustice of the world."
"I Hate Television"
Chase was still miserable. "I could not cross that line, from TV to features, to save my ass," he says. Meanwhile, his years on the ground in network production had given him plenty of time to brood about the deficiencies of television. "Television is really an outgrowth of radio. And radio is just all yak-yak-yak-yak. And that's what television is: yak-yak-yak-yak. It's a prisoner of dialogue, film of people talking. Flashy words."
Still, by 1995, as he was turning 50, he was in a position to pick and choose. He chose the management company turned producers Brillstein-Grey, where he signed a development deal. The company had produced The Larry Sanders Show for HBO, which Chase admired. Brad Grey said to him at the time, "You know, we believe you have a great television series in you." Chase recalls, "It wasn't something I was really dying to hear, because my response in my head was: I don't give a fuck—I hate television. But I wasn't used to being talked to that way"—Grey had also said, "We don't want the kind of stuff they do on the networks"—"and it had an impact on me." Driving home that night, Chase remembered a feature idea that his agents had shot down a couple of years earlier. It was a comedy about a mobster with emotional problems rooted in his difficult relationship with his mother. He sees a therapist. It was way before Analyze This. Now Chase thought to himself, I wonder if that would make a good TV series? They like these things to have female appeal—and this would have his mother and his family.
The pilot script would be a highly personal story stitched together with bits and pieces of fabric from Chase's own life. "Network dramas have not been personal," he reflects. "I don't know very many writers who have been cops, doctors, judges, presidents, or any of that—and, yet, that's what everybody writes about: institutions. The courthouse, the schoolhouse, the precinct house, the White House. Even though it's a Mob show, The Sopranos is based on members of my family. It's about as personal as you can get."
An only child, Chase had a lot of "issues," as they say, with his parents. He grew up very much under their thumb, emotionally, in a garden apartment in Clifton, a working-class town. The complex, called Richfield Village, was a U-shaped brick unit overlooking a grass courtyard. "This was after the war," Chase recalls, "and it was filled with veterans and their children. I had a lot of fun there, felt very free." At the same time he could barely stand to be in the same room with his mother and father; their very proximity made him physically ill, put his stomach in knots. His father, who owned a hardware store, "was a very angry guy. If he had a problem with me, I got the silent treatment. He wouldn't speak to me for a week, two weeks. He'd go around the house with this sort of Mussolini pout." Henry Chase did his best to crush his son's spirit. He belittled him at every opportunity, even made fun of his physical appearance.
That said, it was Chase's mother, Norma, a telephone-book proofreader, who really left a mark. "His mother was a lunatic," says Chase's wife, Denise. The inspiration for Tony's mother, Livia, the North Jersey Medea, so indelibly rendered by the late Nancy Marchand, Norma Chase was a passive-aggressive drama queen, given to every sort of eccentricity. She wouldn't answer the phone after dark, wouldn't drive in the rain. When David was about 12, she threatened to put his eye out with a fork because he said he wanted a Hammond organ. Chase describes her as "a nervous woman who dominated any situation she was in by being so needy and always on the verge of hysteria. You walked on eggshells." (As Joe Pantoliano—a.k.a. "Joey Pants"—who in the show's third and fourth seasons inscribed the crew chief Ralphie Cifaretto in the Sopranos Hall of Fame, puts it, "All of us Italian-Americans had those dominant mothers. My mother hit me in the head with a high-heeled shoe. When I saw The Godfather, I went, They're always worried about him, but in my house everybody was worried about Mommy. Then somebody told me, 'Joey, Mario Puzo used the Godfather as a metaphor for his mother—he was actually writing about her.'")
Chase's mother had some virtues. "She could really make you laugh," Denise Chase recalls. "David picked up his sense of humor from her. She had a different take on everything, and he comes at things from a different angle, too. He also picked up her lack of inhibitions about saying things."
As a teenager, Chase was on speaking terms with depression. He graduated from high school in 1963, then spent two years at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which he detested. "I slept 18 hours a day," he says. He was suffering from "what's come to be known as normal, nagging, clinical depression. It was awful." Did he contemplate suicide? "Well, doesn't everybody?"
He finally switched to N.Y.U. and then announced that he wanted to go to film school, which didn't go over well at home. He recalls, "My father said, 'You can be a clown in the circus if you want—I don't care—but you gotta finish college first.' My mother used to say, 'My worst nightmare is that you're going to marry an Irish Catholic girl, move to California, and I'll never see you again,'" which turned out to be the case. After graduating from N.Y.U., he disappointed both parents in 1968 by marrying Denise Kelly, his high-school sweetheart, and moving to California—"to get away from them," she says.
Denise has been credited by friends with keeping Chase's head above water. Says Konner, "She is his emotional rock, let's say. She is the one he turns to in times of trouble." Chase started therapy in his early 30s at her urging, after her younger sister died at the age of 25 of a brain aneurysm. "We went back to New Jersey for the funeral," Chase recalls. "My father opened the front door of the house, and he went, 'I like everything you have on but your shoes.' Those were his first words: boom—let me find the negative. My parents were not speaking to me, because I was spending too much time with her family. When we came back on the plane, instead of focusing on my wife's loss, I was focused on my problems with my parents. They were in my head all the time. My wife said, 'This is absurd. You really need to be in therapy.'" Not only would seeing a shrink change Chase's life, the experience would eventually provide the spine for The Sopranos.
When it came to writing the show's pilot, Chase took Brad Grey at his word. He didn't want that stuff they did on the networks? Chase would give him something different. "I didn't really watch much television until the first season of Twin Peaks, in 1990," he explains. "That was an eye-opener for me. There's mystery in everything David Lynch does. I don't mean, Who killed Laura Palmer? There's a whole other level of stuff going on, this sense of the mysterious, of the poetic, that you see in great painting, that you see in foreign films, that's way more than the sum of its parts. I didn't see that on television. I didn't see anybody even trying it."
Chase sat down to write a script that was not only highly personal but also one in which the material wasn't pre-chewed for viewers. "On network, everybody says exactly what they're thinking at all times," he says. "By and large, my characters would be telling lies." Above all, he wanted the pilot to be cinematic: "I wanted to do the kind of stuff I've always loved to see. I didn't want it to be a TV show. I wanted to make a little movie every week." Indeed, Chase nervily inserted his David Lynch moment early in the pilot script: Standing behind his home, Tony is beguiled by some ducks that have landed in his swimming pool. It's not a scene that advances the plot; but what is clear is that, among other things, Chase was sending a message: We're not in Studio City anymore!
Indeed, Chase wastes no time announcing his intentions. The first scene has Tony in Dr. Melfi's office, and subsequently he is felled by repeated panic attacks. A close friend of Chase's was dying of cancer while he was writing the pilot, and this too makes its way into the script, with Tony, fearing he might have a brain tumor, undergoing an MRI. In fact, the entire first season would be devoted to cancer, death, and depression. "I was raised with this dread of cancer," he says. "My mother talked about cancer, cancer, cancer all the time. That's where she lived. When I was a kid, probably eight or nine, she described some friend of hers that was in so much pain they couldn't stand to have the sheet on them. It was: Oh my god!" It seemed like everyone on the show was on medication. Hospital scenes turned up so regularly that viewers might have been excused for thinking they were watching ER. But despite the spilled blood and swallowed pills, the show was always funny.
Not Violent Enough?
When Chase was done with the pilot, in 1995, Grey steered the script to the networks. "Because of The Larry Sanders Show, which, despite enormous critical acclaim, made no money, I really didn't want to do the show at HBO," Grey confesses. "Nobody went to cable, certainly not to pay cable. At that time ER was selling for an extraordinary amount of money in syndication, and I wanted to make a lot of money." But each of the networks turned it down, worried that the show was "too dark," and, at least in the case of Fox, that it wasn't violent enough, or so Chase thought. (He'd declined to write any murders into the original script because he'd read that mobsters were no longer whacking one another with the vigor of the old days.) Explains Grey, "I believed that the nets would be open to taking some risks at that time. I was foolish. And greedy. It was basically a waste of time, really bad judgment on my part, because even if they had taken it, it wouldn't have been The Sopranos. It would have been something else." As a last resort, he turned to HBO.
HBO has a different business model, one that depends on subscribers, not advertisers. And at the time it was just beginning to dip its toes into original programming, with shows such as Oz, Arliss, and Sex and the City, which would premiere seven months before The Sopranos (but wouldn't break out until its second season). Grey had known Chris Albrecht, HBO's then president of original programming, for years, ever since Albrecht had been a stand-up comic. Grey picked up the phone and called him. Albrecht was interested. The things about Chase's pilot that turned off the networks didn't bother him. He looked right into the heart of the show and understood that the Mob was a red herring. "I said to myself, This show is about a guy who's turning 40," Albrecht recalls. "He's inherited a business from his dad. He's trying to bring it into the modern age. He's got all the responsibilities that go along with that. He's got an overbearing mom that he's still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he's had an affair. He's got two teenage kids, and he's dealing with the realities of what that is. He's anxious; he's depressed; he starts to see a therapist because he's searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: The only difference between him and everybody I know is he's the don of New Jersey. So, to me, the Mafia part was sort of the tickle for why you watched. The reason you stayed was because of the resonance and the relatability of all that other stuff." A deal was struck: in those days, HBO didn't have much money, and Chase got its standard contract, probably something less than $100,000 for writing and shooting the pilot and then $50,000 or $60,000 per episode if the show was picked up.
As Francis Ford Coppola had when he was casting The Godfather, Chase rounded up the best un- and semi-known Italian actors in New York City. He knew that the pilot, and the subsequent series, if there was one, would stand or fall on the actor who played Tony Soprano. Susan Fitzgerald, who worked for Grey, sent Chase a tape of the scene from the spectacular Quentin Tarantino–Tony Scott picture, True Romance, in which Gandolfini throws an already bloodied Patricia Arquette through a glass shower door. Fitzgerald said, "This is the guy."
For his part, Gandolfini loved the script. "I laughed my ass off," he recalls. "I was like, This is really different and good, and odd. I thought, I've never been the lead before. They're gonna hire somebody else. But I knew I could do it. I have small amounts of Mr. Soprano in me. I was 35, a lunatic, a madman."
Chase recalls, "Jim stopped in the middle of the first audition and said he wasn't doing good, there was an illness in his family. Then he didn't even show up for the second audition. The third audition was at my house. What happens every time [when you're casting something] is that people come in and read, and they read and they read, and you start to think, This is really badly written, the thing sucks. And then the right person comes in, and it all works. It was pretty obvious that Jim had too much going on for this role to go with anyone else."
Chase can be inscrutable, and actors who met with him often had no idea whether he liked them or not. "I thought he was really bored," recalls Michael Imperioli, who plays "Christofuh" Moltisanti, of his audition for Chase. "He's got a poker face, so I thought he wasn't into me, and he kept giving me notes and having me try it again, which often is a sign that you're not doing it right. I thought, I'm not getting this. So he said, 'Thank you,' and I left. I didn't expect to hear back. And then they called."
No one involved with the pilot, not Chase (who directed it), not Gandolfini, thought it would get picked up. It just violated too many shalls and shall-nots, even for pay cable. Indeed, once the pilot was shot, HBO couldn't make up its corporate mind. Recalls Time Warner president and C.O.O. Jeff Bewkes, then chairman and C.E.O. of HBO, "For us, it was a real stretch just to pay for The Sopranos, because even in its first year it was going to be the most expensive drama that I think anybody had ever made, $2.5 to $2.7 million per hour." (The dollars were chewed up by the location shooting in New Jersey.) "If you were us," Bewkes continues, "you were going to have to say, O.K., so let's go spend $30 million for a series that on the surface looks like a gangster who's going to a shrink. And later, when we were casting Jimmy Gandolfini, we knew no network would put a guy with his bulk into the key leading-man role of a week-after-week series they were trying to make commercial. If it didn't work, we were completely wiped out."
Chase was so sure that the pilot would never get made he had been having conversations with the producers of The X-Files about coming on as a producer-writer. At the last minute, right before the Sopranos actors' contracts were set to expire, after which they would be free to take other projects, HBO ordered 13 episodes. But the wrangling wasn't over. Chase wanted to call the series The Sopranos, after some kids in his high school. "But HBO had a problem with that," he explains. "They thought people will say, 'It's about opera,'" which proved true. "They had people generating lists of alternate titles, page after page after page: New Jersey Blood, this terrible shit. They wanted to call it Family Man. Steven Van Zandt said, 'This is insane! Are they outta their fuckin' minds?!' Then a series went on the air called Family Guy, and that was the end of that. So they said, 'All right, use The Sopranos.'"
Despite his contempt for network television, Chase had picked up work habits that served him in good stead. Says Carolyn Strauss, the president of HBO Entertainment, "He was a veteran TV producer, had worked very hard in the network system for many years, and he knew which rules to observe, which he might be able to break."
Given the demands of the dense and complex scripts, the first season was shot on an extremely tight schedule, eight days an episode, although they were long, 16-hour days. This put the actors under tremendous stress, especially Gandolfini, who was in almost every scene. The production hit a speed bump on the fifth episode, "College," co-written by Chase and James Manos Jr., in which Tony takes his high-school-age daughter, Meadow, on a college tour. The story was based on a trip Chase had taken with his own daughter. Gandolfini was having trouble learning his lines. "I had never done anything like that amount of memorization in my life," he recalls. "I'm talking five, six, seven pages a night. David might have regretted giving me his home phone number, because I'd wake him up at 3:30 in the morning and say, 'What the fuck, man?! You're fuckin' killing me! I can't do this. I'm gonna go crazy!' Like I had to do almost a one-page monologue in a phone booth. And being the calm person that I am—especially then—I couldn't get it. I'd forget my lines. I took the phone, and I smashed it a couple times. After that, I broke the windows in the phone booth. crack! smash! bang! And all I could hear was David laughing hysterically. And then I started laughing. And I said, 'You know, I can't memorize all this shit.' But you learn, you learn how to do it."
Says Chase when I bring up the phone-booth story, "Some of that turmoil that's inside of Jim, that pain and sadness, is what he uses to bring that guy to the screen. He'd complain, 'These things I have to do [as Tony], I behave in such a terrible way.' I'd say to him, 'It says in the script, "He slammed the refrigerator door." It didn't say, "He destroys the entire refrigerator!" You did that. This is what you decide to bring to it.'" Chase laughs, then continues: "The reason I was amused [when he destroyed the phone booth] is because I have these same tendencies as he does, which is I'm very infantile about temper tantrums with inanimate objects. Telephones and voice-mail menus, that sort of stuff drives me crazy."
The real problem with "College" was HBO's objection to the story line. In the course of the tour, Tony stumbles across a snitch who's now in the witness-protection program and realizes he has to kill him. "That was a truly big flap," Chase recalls. "We'd gone four episodes, and I thought, If this guy really is a mobster, come on, he's gotta kill somebody." Worried about Tony's "relatability," Albrecht told Chase, "You know, you've created one of the best characters in the past 20 years, and you're gonna destroy him in one fell swoop." Chase stuck to his guns, and when the first cut of the episode arrived at HBO, Albrecht was certain that he was right, that the murder didn't work. "The audience'll hate this guy," he told Chase. "You can't do it." Chase fought back: "I gotta tell you, in the universe he lives in, if he doesn't do this, the audience will hate him more. He's gotta uphold the code. If we're really gonna believe this guy is a credible mobster, he's gotta kill people. In real life, that's what these people do."
In the end, Chase and Albrecht compromised. Chase shot a couple of extra scenes in which the snitch deals drugs and, worse, hires someone to kill Tony, all of which put Tony's actions in a better light. Nevertheless, Chase insisted not only that Tony kill the snitch but that he do it with his bare hands, garroting him, and that's the way it was shot. Chase would be vindicated a year later when he and Manos won Emmys for writing the episode.
HBO screened two episodes for the press before the start of the first season. The response was overwhelming. "When I saw the way people reacted at the screening, I was stunned," Chase recalls. "They were clapping, cheering, laughing in all the right places. It was everything you could possibly dream of. When the reviews came out, all across the country, there was only one negative review. I thought, Wow. I've never seen that happen."
The Sopranos premiered on January 10, 1999. Recalls Albrecht, "Nobody had ever paid attention to us before. Now Saturday Night Live was doing parodies of a first-season show on HBO! We were the focus of media attention, whether it was the five-o'clock news or The Tonight Show or The New York Times. Certainly, I'd never been involved with anything like that before." The Gary Shandling Show had been an object of cult adoration; The Sopranos was a phenomenon. Three and a half million people had caught the premiere; soon each episode (shown several times a week) was drawing an aggregate 10-million-plus viewers—huge numbers for HBO. (The most recent new episodes averaged 13.1 million viewers, after a peak of more than 18 million during season four.)
Gandolfini and company became instant celebrities. The actor remembers going to a fight at Madison Square Garden with some of the cast. It was as if they were the Beatles. "I walked in, there was a stampede," he says. "The whole crowd started chanting Toneee! Toneee! My manager was in from L.A., and he was like, 'Holy fuck!' I said to him, 'You better be nice to me or I'll ask these guys to kill you.'"
Van Zandt—who had originally auditioned for the part of Tony after his face popped out at Chase from the cover of an old Springsteen album—had gone out of his way to make himself unrecognizable on the show by gaining weight and replacing his signature bandanna with its opposite, a sleek pompadour. "After 25 years in the music business, I'd achieved a fairly notable level of celebrity," he says. "But by the second show on this sort of you-have-to-find-it cable station, which only a couple of fight fans knew where it was, 7 out of 10 people who stopped me on the street were talking about The Sopranos: 'Great new show.' I'm like, 'My mother didn't recognize me—how the fuck did you?' So I knew then, David's hit a vein."
Some fans were hard-pressed to distinguish the actors from their roles. "I was living in the meat-market district on the far West Side, below 14th Street," Gandolfini remembers. "I heard this banging on the outside door and screaming. It was late, like after midnight. So I opened the door, and the guy turns white. All of a sudden I realize, Oh, fuck, he thinks I'm Tony. So that's when I started to realize … "
Real wiseguys had circled around The Godfather, but the Sopranos team was careful to keep them at arm's length, knowing that one thing could lead to another. Chase had some familiarity with the history of the Mob in New Jersey, but for research he preferred law-enforcement sources, inviting Mob experts to come in and talk to the writers. Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, whom Chase hired at the beginning of the first season, recall listening to a guy in the witness-protection program who had lectured at Quantico. "We used a lot of that shit," says Green. "For instance, we learned how they would break an arm, laying the guy's arm over the curb and then stomping." Another thing the writers picked up from the experts was "the attitude of Mob guys toward cunnilingus"—negative—which Tony would use against his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), with whom he was struggling for control of the family, when it emerged that the latter had a predilection for muff-diving.
Still, despite keeping a distance from the real thing, the Sopranos cast and crew couldn't help knowing their real-life counterparts were out there, watching the show, and every once in a while the production's seismographs would detect some rumbling. Once, Chase recounts, "a guy came into a bar where one of our actors was, and he just sat there looking at him all night long. As the bar emptied out, the guy said to him, 'You know, I'm from Jersey. I want you to know you're making a lot of people unhappy out there. These people don't like your show and you should watch what the fuck you're doing.' And he left. Nothing ever happened. We never knew if he was connected or not."
Although there is now plenty of competition—The Wire, Deadwood, House, even—it's no exaggeration to say that The Sopranos is the best-written dramatic series in the history of television. "Every shot, every word, of The Sopranos is David in some way or another," says Konner. "Everything is farmed out, but everything comes back to him and then is shaped by him." Says another writer, Terence Winter, "I've been on the set, David calls in, 9:30 at night, he's out to dinner, and he knows exactly what scene we're about to shoot. And he'll say, 'Is the guy who's playing the cop there?' 'Yeah.' 'Does he still have the beard he had at the audition?' 'Yeah.' 'Ask him to shave it.' It's, like, amazing." There's no improvising on the show—for one thing, there's no time for it. Chase and his writers insist that the actors speak their dialogue exactly as it's written, though, according to Winter, Gandolfini will occasionally query a line. "What's the difference," the actor might say, "if I call him a 'fuckin' cocksucker' or a 'cocksucking fucker'? Is that really gonna change anything?" "Well, yeah, it sounds better the first way. You just have to trust me," the writer would reply. There's a famous story about an actor who said to Chase what actors often say, "My character wouldn't say this." Chase responded, "Who says it's your character?"
Imperioli has written several episodes. "The thing that I take away as a writer, the whole key to David and the show's success, is detail. Nothing is left generic. When Paulie and Christopher were lost in the woods"—the famous "Pine Barrens" episode, in which Paulie flips out, thinking he's killed a Russian mobster, and ends up trying to bury him in a wintry forest—"we were already stuck in the snow, we were stranded, we were freezing, so what a great idea that Paulie lost his shoe. That one detail opened up this whole other world of comedy, desperation, trying to make a shoe, him wanting to steal my shoe—whatever." Shades of Saps at Sea.
Not everyone, apparently, appreciated Chase's level of control. "People were intimidated by David's brain," says Landress. On the set, he was known as "Master Cylinder," the arch-nemesis of Felix the Cat in the 1950s cartoon series for television. Master Cylinder is described on Wikipedia as "a disembodied brain contained within an electromechanical body." Draw your own conclusions.
Chase makes himself available to the actors if they have questions, although he doesn't always answer them. Once, recalls Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony's therapist, Dr. Melfi, she asked Chase about a scene in which Melfi discusses a dream she's had with her own therapist. "I said, 'David, you gave me this huge dream—what does it mean?' He said, 'Absolutely nothing.' 'But, David, you want me to play this scene, how can I?' 'Well, sometimes you dream and it means absolutely nothing.' 'I know, but I'm a psychiatrist—dreams mean things.' 'Nope, this dream means absolutely nothing!' 'Okaaay!' So you climb out on the limb, and you end up hanging with one hand. It's not the normal way writers and actors work. It's the way he doesn't tie everything up in a bow after the 60 minutes. And no actor likes to be spoon-fed."
Unlike features, where writers are the butts of Polish jokes (you remember the one about the Polish actress who fucks the writer), television is a writer-driven medium, which, paradoxically, may be why Chase, during the first season, fired almost every writer on the show when his or her first draft came in. He explains, "We had writers from Iowa, California, you name it, and they just didn't seem to get this East Coast, schoolyard-bully thing, this level of verbal abuse. And savagery. It's called 'breaking balls,' and it's what guys in Jersey and New York do." Only Robin Green, Mitch Burgess, and Frank Renzulli were left standing. In the second year, they were joined by Winter. By the time his agent sent him a videotape of the pilot, Winter had already done a good deal of TV writing, for shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess. When he finally got into the writers' room, at Silvercup, he was impressed. "This wasn't handcuffed network TV, where you can never be yourself. It was very freeing, when you didn't have to edit yourself. This was absolutely right out of our brains onto the page. I couldn't believe this stuff was coming out of characters' mouths—and this is a television show."
Chase had little patience for learning on the job. Either you got it or you didn't. It took him two years to warm up to Winter. "It's almost like a war situation," the writer continues. "David doesn't want to get to know you that well, because you might be out of there very quickly. He used to say, 'I'm not running a writing school.' You better understand why Tony would or would not do something, and if he would, this is how he'd do it. You have to deliver. I'm exaggerating slightly, but you are only as good as your last script. If it doesn't come in right, you're gone." As Tim Van Patten, who has directed numerous Sopranos episodes, puts it, "If David finds your Achilles' heel, he will go for it, at war or play." Sirico, who had done serious jail time, took a step backward whenever he ran into Chase.
The writers' meetings were grueling, from 10 in the morning to 7 or 8 in the evening without much in the way of breaks as they "beat out the story." Says Winter, "David wanted to hear everything—every stupid dream you ever had, any dumb thing that ever happened to you as a kid, your ridiculous opinions about politics, life, women, friendship. There was nothing too horrible, too trivial, too stupid to make it into the show, because it's real life." Gandolfini calls the writers "vampires." He says, "You tell them shit about your life and then it shows up three episodes later." Continues Winter, "At one point, in the third year, we needed something really horrific to happen to Meadow and her roommate. And I said, 'Once I was on the subway and I saw a homeless woman who had a skirt made out of a garbage bag. As she got up, the skirt fell off, and she had the Daily News stuffed up the crack of her ass.' I thought, Of course, we'll never use that. David said, 'That's perfect.' I was like, Wow! There's no limits!"
Two Stupid Guineas Yelling at Each Other
Much of the material continued to come from Chase's own life, and not all of it from his childhood. He also drew on his experiences in Los Angeles. "It's amusing to me that there are two businesses which seem to be run by criminals: the Mob and Hollywood," he observes. "My heart goes out to mobsters before it goes out to those other guys, because at least mobsters confront you." Sometimes the Hollywood material was explicit—Christopher tries his hand at writing a movie script—and other times metaphorical. On one level, Tony and the other bosses are surrogates for Chase himself, the show-runner. For example, these words from Tony sound like one from the heart: "All due respect, you got no fucking idea what it's like to be number one. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fucking thing. It's too much to deal with almost. And in the end you're completely alone with it all."
Chase is so paranoid about leaking plot points, it's as if he's forced everyone connected with the show to take an oath of omertà. Says Van Patten, "When I'm done reading a script, I will take the first 10 pages and rip them up into small bits, drop half into the bathroom garbage, and half into the kitchen garbage. Then I'll take the next 10 pages and rip them into small bits, drop half into the other bathroom garbage, and half into the incinerator in the hallway. I've been doing that for 10 years. My fingers would be killing me by the end of these things. But I'm terrified that someone would find it, and there'd be a leak traced back to me. My mother-in-law just gave me a paper shredder, but now it's too late."
Like many of his characters, Chase has a temper. In the grand tradition of Scorsese and Coppola, he can throw things in meetings, break phones. "God knows, my father threw shit—we're not allowed to have a temper anymore?" exclaims Gandolfini, sounding very much like Tony hectoring Dr. Melfi. "We're not allowed to get angry about things? There's something wrong with you 'cause you raised your voice? When did that happen? To me, David's truthful, he's clear. He tells me when something's wrong. When actors come to me, ask, 'Am I doing O.K.?' I'll say, 'Believe me. If you weren't doing O.K., you would know.' I appreciate that. Occasionally we have started a conversation loudly. But after a second or two, we both laugh. 'Cause we know it's just gonna be two stupid guineas yelling at each other."
Anger is a great motivator. "What's driving the show, and driving David, is that he doesn't like the world as he finds it," says Konner. "He's taking out a lot of his frustrations by letting these characters act out without a super-ego, without a sense of responsibility, because he wants to—and to some extent we all do."
But, of course, the other side of the coin is there, too. You can't sustain a marriage to your teenage sweetheart for 40 years and raise a child without achieving a modicum of maturity. Acting out is not without cost, and even the show's most impulse-driven characters, save perhaps Paulie, struggle against it. Tony may screw around, but, as Gandolfini reminds us, "if you look at every relationship that he has had, he hasn't gotten away scot-free in fuckin' anything. There's that Russian girl tried to kill herself. There's Gloria Trillo"—the sexy Mercedes-Benz saleswoman played by Annabella Sciorra—"another fucking lunatic who wanted me to kill her. The Russian with the one leg? She tells me, 'You're like a little baby.' As interesting as this man's life is, he has paid a price." The Sopranos is precisely a battlefield between civilization and its discontents.
Year by year, defying the laws of television gravity, the show just got better. Every time it seemed as if there was no place to go, Chase and the other writers somehow topped themselves. They killed off major characters, first Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) and later Adriana (Drea de Matteo), both of whom had been flipped by the F.B.I. (When Big Pussy turned rat, his photograph reportedly came down in social clubs all over New Jersey and New York!) It sent the show's jeopardy index through the roof, signaling that no one was safe. And Chase kept adding weird and wonderful characters—John Heard's bent cop in the first season; David Proval's Richie Aprile, a psycho who jumps out in a show rich with psychos; Svetlana (Alla Kliouka Schaffer), the one-legged, chain-smoking, tough-talking Russian "caregiver"—and kept putting the regulars in eye-popping scenes that left you blinking, wondering if you just saw what you thought you saw: Johnny Sack pulping one of Ralphie's crew, snarling, "Let me buy you a drink," and then pissing on him; Christopher, stoned on H, sitting on Adriana's dog and crushing it, or crossing himself before dropping Ralphie's severed head into a hole in the earth; Dr. Melfi raped in a parking garage; Gloria Trillo hitting Tony in the back of the head with a steak; Janice (Aida Turturro) stealing Svetlana's prosthetic leg; Paulie pawing through Adriana's underwear drawer, sniffing the crotch of her panties; and on and on. Chase was having a ball, or as much of a ball as he allows himself to have. As Konner puts it, "It's tremendous power. I mean, my God, hundreds of people working in the service of something you thought up in your little brain."
As the story lines grew more complicated and the cast got bigger (and some actors renegotiated their salaries), the show became more expensive to produce. The 8-day shooting schedule for each episode became 12 days, with some episodes reportedly taking nearly a month, putting the show somewhere between television and features. The cost per episode went up to an estimated $10 million plus.
The Sopranos became to HBO what Quentin Tarantino had been to Miramax, a magnet for talent. Says Jeff Bewkes, who, on a shelf in his office, proudly displays the bowling-ball bag that once contained Ralphie's head, "It was so respected by the creative community that all kinds of people—writers, directors, and actors—wanted to work at HBO who previously had said, 'I only want to work in feature films.' We now had David Milch making Deadwood, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg making Band of Brothers, and Hanks coming back to make John Adams," a seven-part mini-series set to appear in the first half of 2008. Adds Albrecht, "The Sopranos was the hammer that broke the glass ceiling for us."
The only problems were good problems, problems caused by success. In the middle of the third season, Ralphie beats his pregnant goomara (Ariel Kiley) to death behind the Bada Bing, where she works as a stripper. "Afterwards, I got stopped on Fifth Avenue by little old ladies who were like, 'Oh my God, you were so bad to that woman,' feeling my arms," recalls Pantoliano. "They were flirting with me, turned on that I was the guy who beat up this hooker. It was sick." (In a subsequent episode, when Tony kills Ralphie in the belief that he set a fire that incinerated a racehorse that Tony has come to love, Chase wouldn't tell Pantoliano if Ralphie had set the fire or not. Pantoliano decided to play the scene as if he hadn't, as if he were innocent.)
Someone who wasn't turned on was NBC's then president, Bob Wright, who sent out tapes of the beating to industry insiders at the end of April 2001, with a letter that read, in part, "I want you to help think about an issue that I believe is having a major impact on our business—the nature of the content in HBO's The Sopranos.… It is a show which we could not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity."
It was unclear what precisely Wright was getting at, but to Chase, the general intent seemed evident. "It was an attack," he says. "There was a lot of envy that we had freedom, while they were crippled by standards and practices. But it's not like the whole reason the show was a success is that people could say 'fuck' and shoot somebody in the head. Everything has to be appropriate to some version of reality. If I was doing a series about the family, or any of these faith-based church groups, I wouldn't have people saying 'fuck,' 'shit,' shooting each other in the head, or dancing around with their tits hanging out. But the fact is, for whatever reason, most people in America today use profanity in their daily discourse. So when I watch TV and it isn't there, it doesn't seem expressive of the way people really speak." Chase felt that Wright was virtually inviting the F.C.C. to censor the show. But Chase also understood that, in its own way, it was a compliment. He says, "It made me happy."
Recalls Bewkes, "I thought about calling [Wright], and then I thought, No, what am I going to say? He hung himself. Isn't there an old saying, Don't shoot a guy who's killing himself?"
Has success changed Chase? The director William Friedkin once said to me, apropos of losing touch with one's audience, "The day you take your first tennis lesson, your career is over." I mention this to Chase.
"I don't play tennis," Chase responds.
"There's a lot of golf in the show."
"I don't play golf."
Says Konner, "He doesn't play anything. He's not a happy-go-lucky guy. He wasn't a happy-go-lucky guy before, and he's not a happy-go-lucky guy now. He's a troubled guy. He hasn't changed that much, because he still feels that The Sopranos is not the movies, it's not the top of the game. And like good artists, he tends to de-value what he does." Adds Van Zandt, "If enjoying success is fucking a bunch of beautiful starlets, developing a cocaine habit, opening a couple of restaurants, buying a golf course—in that sense, he's not handling success very well." Chase did buy a château in France, but Van Zandt isn't impressed. "Is buying a house in the middle of the fucking woods, in the middle of nowhere, enjoying success? You tell me."
HBO, on the other hand, has had little difficulty enjoying the show's success. The rain of Emmys and the river of money it has generated mean that HBO has always been anxious for Chase to renew. (HBO will not reveal any financial figures regarding The Sopranos, save for saying the show is worth "tens of millions of dollars" to the network, presumably in increased subscriptions and ancillary revenue. In 2004, The New York Times estimated that figure as $100 million, the amount of damages for which HBO sued Gandolfini during a salary dispute before the show's fifth season. While DVD sales have generated hundreds of millions in gross revenues, and the series was sold to A&E for reruns for more than $215 million, says Chase, "We've never been able to find out what they make" from The Sopranos.) Chase's original deal had been for two seasons. When that was up, he signed for two more, but each new season posed creative problems. In the first season, Livia and Uncle Junior put out a hit on Tony that failed, which created a problem for the second season, because Tony would presumably have them both killed. "But Junior and Livia were the favorites of the writers, 'cause they would say the most outrageous things," Chase recalls. "And Nancy Marchand, she was ill. She had said to me, 'David, just keep me working.' We couldn't kill her. So Tony was estranged from Livia and Junior." (Marchand, who died after the second season, enjoyed a brief afterlife in the third season, courtesy of outtakes, before Livia passed away, too.)
This Week Tony Buys a Couch?
The fourth season would end, in 2003, at a high point, with the devastating "Whitecaps" episode, written by Chase, Green, and Burgess, which climaxes with Carmela throwing her husband's golf clubs onto the driveway, with Tony himself—and the marriage—to follow. But whether the series would continue was an open question. Albrecht told Chase, "We'd like another season, obviously." Chase demurred—he was always worried about overstaying his welcome. According to Bracco, he had grown tired of Tony's "whining continuously about his mother," among other things.
Then Chase changed his mind. He recalls, "I had this great situation. Sometimes I began to think of it as the family business, my own farm. So why leave it? I was growing good tomatoes." Chase signed for one more go-round, but took a long hiatus. The same creative issues re-emerged more decisively after the end of the fifth season, in June of 2004. Explains Chase, "I've always said the show was sort of like the Mir space station. Parts wore out, it had to be jerry-rigged—it was only supposed to be up there for a year, but it wound up staying much longer. So every year the thought was, We should stop now. There's a point at which creative fatigue sets in, and I thought that would be pretty soon, and I wanted to stop before that happened. It was also something about the particular nature of the characters—they are fairly provincial and limited. There's nothing they're really trying to accomplish, except to stay alive and keep earning. There's a lot of socializing and collection of envelopes. But they don't travel that much, they don't read that much, and they stay, basically, in their neighborhood. We don't solve a crime every week, or perform an operation. And so it's hard to take them new places without just repeating yourself. It was over, as far as I was concerned. The impulse to leave and try something new had gotten stronger than the impulse to harvest the next crop of tomatoes."
Chase discussed continuing the show with some of the key players, including Gandolfini. "He asked me if I wanted to do another year," recalls the actor. "I said, 'If you think you have something to say. You know, I don't want it to be about: this week Tony buys a couch.'" But HBO wasn't ready to give up. The network had been there before. Says Bewkes, "I always said to him, Are you sure that you're thinking straight about this? Because you've already got a beautiful canvas for yourself in terms of the story, the setup, the characters, the actors. In effect, you're already making six Sopranos films a year. You'd be lucky to make a theatrical film once a year, getting all the bullshit that goes into that."
Finally, in January of 2005, Chase called an emergency meeting of his writers—Winter, Green, and Burgess—as well as his wife, Denise, on a Sunday at Silvercup, to sound them out. "There was a lot of inner conflict in all of us," says Green. "And David was the one that voiced it: 'Is this a good idea to go on?' He loved the show and didn't want to sell out, but there was the huge payday. It's very hard to resist. And then, what are you gonna do that's better than this? But, also, wanting to get out so you could do the movies you'd always wanted to do."
Brad Grey was now chairman and C.E.O. of Paramount Pictures, while retaining a significant interest in The Sopranos; he stood to benefit no matter what Chase decided. "He and I have had long discussions about the right time for him to get into the film business," Grey says. "He knows that he has an open invitation to make pictures here with me, and I think that's what will happen in time. I really believe that he'll be in the movie business."
Chase eventually decided to do one more season, a sixth, but once he got into the writing, there was so much material that one more season effectively turned into two. Chase is nothing if not a contrarian, and the season opened with a radical idea: Uncle Junior, on the brink of senility, shoots Tony, who slips into a coma and over a three-episode arc imagines himself in a different life, as a solar-heating-systems salesperson from Arizona. It grew out of an idea of Terence Winter's, namely, what would have happened to Tony had he not followed his father into the family business, but it merely seemed to prove Albrecht's point: Tony is an Everyman, and the Mafia is "the tickle for why you watched." Without it, Sopranos fans, or at least some of them, grumbled that the show was losing steam. But whatever your opinion of the parallel-universe gambit, the rest of the season—including the outing of gay mobster Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli), the simmering trouble between Tony and Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) of the New York family, and Christopher's adventures trying to attach Ben Kingsley to a script and his assault on Lauren Bacall (who, playing herself, was thrilled to say "fuck" on camera)—was priceless.
Wherever the final nine episodes leave Tony, it seems that in true Sopranos fashion Chase won't have tied up all loose ends. "I tried to talk him into doing more [episodes] just a couple of months ago," says Albrecht. "I looked at the story, and I thought I saw where I could extend it. I said, What about we do this? What about we do that? He thought about it for a minute. Maybe if I'd gone to him earlier [I could have convinced him], but he said, 'No—this is it.'" Albrecht sighs. "Now people go, 'What's next? Where's the next Sopranos?' There is no next Sopranos."
So, finally, after some 35 years of trying, Chase will get his shot at directing a feature—thanks to The Sopranos, the greatest calling-card film in the history of motion pictures. He has plenty of unproduced scripts in his drawer; if he knows whether his first film will be based on one of those or something new, he's not saying. But be careful what you wish for. The irony is that, in the course of those 35 years, features, both studio and "independent," have become more and more problematic. Even this past year's mainstream attempts at serious filmmaking (The Good Shepherd, Blood Diamond, Letters from Iwo Jima) are distended to the point of exhaustion, as if length itself has become the measure of quality, as if the filmmakers have lost confidence in their gifts and are falling back on relentless accretion of screen time to achieve what they have failed to do by other means. Critic Manny Farber once famously championed "termite art" against "white-elephant art." In today's Hollywood, we have "tapeworm art." Television, on the other hand, has gotten progressively better—in large measure thanks to Chase himself. He will be entering an industry in crisis, aesthetic, if not commercial, which may be a good thing—fewer hard acts for him to follow—and if we're lucky, he will be able to do for features what he did for television. But that's a crushing burden to shoulder, too much by far to wish on anyone. Better to hope he makes a feature as good as any one of the 86 episodes of The Sopranos.