One Final Whack at That HBO Mob
WIDELY proclaimed as the greatest drama ever created for television, “The Sopranos” comes to an end Sunday night after 8 years, 86 episodes and 18 Emmy Awards. For fans the finale brings high expectation and deep reluctance. For the actors the predominant emotions are grief and gratitude.
In a series of interviews 10 cast members spoke one last time before the finale. There was plenty of giving thanks, in particular to David Chase, the show’s creator, and to James Gandolfini, who gave the world Tony Soprano.
Like all television actors whose on-air personas will live on — both in memories and repeats — most members of the cast concede they will never have roles to match these. Can Tony Sirico ever be anyone as inimitable as Paulie Walnuts? Will Mr. Gandolfini ever be costumed in anything as fitting as that white bathrobe?
And while no one in the cast was offering any hints of how Sunday night’s episode would end, a few smaller questions were answered. Like would there ever be a reference back to the famed Pine Barrens episode, in which Paulie and Christopher flailed around in the snow trying to kill a Russian? What is Bruce Springsteen’s favorite fight scene? And when did Christopher know he would be killed?
JAMES GANDOLFINI, 45: TONY SOPRANO
The only person who expressed neither regret nor reservations about walking away from “The Sopranos” was the man who spoke more of its lines than anyone. “Obviously this changed my life,” Mr. Gandolfini said. “But I’ve separated. I’m relieved.”
Keeping Tony alive, even figuratively, took its toll. Steven R. Schirripa, who played Tony’s brother-in-law, said that he had seen Mr. Gandolfini after filming had ended and that “he looked like someone who’d had a piano lifted off his back.”
Mr. Gandolfini took his leadership on the show seriously, most notably after his fractious salary holdout at the start of the show’s fifth season led HBO to shut down production. When he returned to the set, Mr. Gandolfini privately called a list of his colleagues to his trailer and, one by one, presented them with personal checks for tens of thousands of dollars, telling them, in the words of one recipient, “Thanks for putting up with me.”
Of his television wife, played by Edie Falco, Mr. Gandolfini said: “Edie is kind of a force of nature. When we’d have a scene, and she’d get angry, I could feel sheepish.”
Despite what he called “the most satisfying work I feel I may ever have,” Mr. Gandolfini is not looking back. “No, I’m very done,” he said.
EDIE FALCO, 43: CARMELA SOPRANO
She admits to being in denial. “We’ve taken many breaks,” Ms. Falco said. “So I can still fool myself that this is just another break.”
From the beginning she identified with Carmela, but she never thought she would win the role. “It was television,” she said. “I didn’t fit what they thought an Italian wife looked like.”
But once in costume she did. She is one of the few actors who wasn’t always recognized off the set. “I went out once, and some woman said to me, ‘I recognize you even in that disguise.’ I said, ‘This is how I really look.’ ”
For Ms. Falco, one moment in particular, involving the actress Nancy Marchand, who played her mother-in-law, set the standard for working on “The Sopranos”: “Carmela threw a party. There was food everywhere, all the stuff. We were shooting the scene at 3 a.m. on a Friday. Everybody was falling down exhausted. I’m doing the scene, and Nancy is off camera and she picks up a slice of salami from one of the trays and, trying to get me to laugh, she starts slapping it on her tongue. I couldn’t stop laughing. And I thought: Who on the planet has it better than me?” Mr. Schirripa said the first script threw him because Tony unleashed a string of fat jokes, referring to Bobby as “a calzone with legs.”
STEVEN R. SCHIRRIPA, 49: Bobby Baccalieri
“What’s this?” Mr. Schirripa wondered. “I’m not that much fatter than he is.”
It all became clear when he was provided with a fat suit that enhanced his natural proportions to the point that he was almost spherical. He was eventually allowed to drop the suit but retained his role as the “fat goofy guy,” as he put it. Soon the producers were outfitting him in cowboy hats and once even in lederhosen. The character outlived the jokes, however, and took part in one of the season’s most memorable scenes, a fistfight with Tony.
“Jim and I decided to make the fight as real as we could,” Mr. Schirripa said. “It was a sloppy fight. It was two fat guys having a sweaty, drunken fight. Jim was choking me, pulling my hair. We didn’t use stuntmen until he crashed into the table. At a charity event Bruce Springsteen told me it was the best TV fight he’d ever seen.”
MICHAEL IMPERIOLI, 41: CHRISTOPHER MOLTISANTI
In addition to playing Christopher, Mr. Imperioli wrote five scripts for the series, which gave him a certain edge among the actors. “There was always a lot of fear,” Mr. Imperioli said. “People wanted to know about being killed. I kept pretending I didn’t know.” But he did. “I knew I was getting killed a year before,” he said.
Mr. Imperioli did not write one of the most talked-about episodes in which he appeared, “Pine Barrens.” In it he and Paulie got lost in a snow-filled forest after trying, ineptly, to whack a Russian mobster.
“That episode was like a little one-act play,” Mr. Imperioli said. “Like a different version of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ ” Ever since, viewers have been waiting for the mobster to return, ready for revenge. But he has never reappeared. “This show was never what people expected,” Mr. Imperioli said.
TONY SIRICO, 64: PAULIE GUALTIERI, a k a PAULIE WALNUTS
“God put his finger on that one,” said Tony Sirico, who shared much of the Pine Barrens episode with Mr. Imperioli. The script never called for snow, but by the time the crew reached the location near West Point, N.Y., three feet had fallen. “I kept slipping and falling,” Mr. Sirico said. “It was 11 degrees. I was freezing my rear off.”
Even though Mr. Chase laughed off fans’ suggestions that the Russian would reappear, Mr. Sirico said a tease had been in the works. “We had a scene this season when Chris and I are talking in the bar about whatever happened to that Russian guy. And in the script we were supposed to go outside and there he was standing on the corner. But when we went to shoot it, they took it out. I think David didn’t like it. He wanted the audience just to suffer.”
Like every other member of the cast Mr. Sirico said goodbye to anonymity once “The Sopranos” got rolling. “I had no idea how big the show was until the second season, when we’re in Italy to shoot, and me and Vincent Pastore, who played Pussy, decided to go to the Isle of Capri — you know, because they wrote a song about it. So we’re not off the boat 10 minutes before 15 Irish people come over going: ‘Paulie! Pussy!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Now he can. “Tom Cruise has nothing on me in the world of popularity. If I’m with five other Paulies and somebody yells, ‘Hey. Paulie,’ I know it’s for me.”
STEVEN VAN ZANDT, 56: SILVIO DANTE
Mr. Chase happened to be watching television when he caught a ceremony introducing the Rascals to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He thought the guy cracking jokes, Little Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, was funny and might work on his new television series.
“I think it was related to Bruce,” Mr. Van Zandt said. “I’d been playing consiglieri and best friend to Bruce, and this guy was the same thing to Tony Soprano. David could see that.”
The challenge of acting was made easier, Mr. Van Zandt said, by the elaborate transformation he had to pull off. “When I’d walk out of that trailer, I was Silvio Dante,” he said. “I’d do the hair and the clothes and slump myself down like I’d added some pounds. Little Steven could never have done it. But I was this other, tougher guy.”
Alone among the cast, Mr. Van Zandt had been up close to a cultural phenomenon before. But one thing struck him. “I am having the experience two times in my life of doing something that makes New Jersey fashionable. What are the odds on that?”
DOMINIC CHIANESE, 76: CORRADO (JUNIOR) SOPRANO
After a long career as both an actor and a musical performer, Mr. Chianese started playing Uncle Junior at the age of 67. In an effort to flesh out his character he initially toyed with the idea of adopting a limp. Then he was given glasses.
“The glasses truly helped,” he said. “It made me have a mask. And you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. In a scene with Tony, his head would be twice as big.”
But the glasses were never intended to define Junior. “Everyone else on the show has very large eyes,” Mr. Chianese said. “I have deep-set eyes. David wanted a consistent look. He’s a visual artist. So he gave me the glasses.”
ROBERT ILER, 22: A. J. SOPRANO
Having spent almost half his life as the son of Tony Soprano, Mr. Iler said he could hardly remember a time when he was not a Soprano. His most challenging moment surely came this season with A. J.’s suicide attempt. “It was the middle of January, and it was very cold in that water,” he said.
Did he think Tony was ultimately a good father? “Yeah,” Mr. Iler said, but he added, “I think sometimes he loved his son, but he hated him a lot more of the time.”
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER, 26: MEADOW SOPRANO She was 16 when the pilot was shot and 17 in the first episode. “It almost feels like a dream, the past nine and a half years,” Ms. Sigler said. During the first seasons she didn’t have to leave Jericho High School on Long Island, making it to the prom and other school events.
The episode that has stayed with her the most is from Season 1, when Tony takes Meadow college shopping in Maine, only to run into — and eliminate — a former wise guy turned rat. At the read-through, Mr. Gandolfini, who always sat in a big leather chair that first season, welcomed her as a peer by showing her to the chair.
“He told me, ‘This is your episode,’ ” Ms. Sigler said.
LORRAINE BRACCO, 52: DR. JENNIFER MELFI
Dr. Melfi’s diagnosis of Tony Soprano as a sociopath was on target, Ms. Bracco said. “But she always believed she could really help him,” she added. “I think if Hitler had come in, she would have tried to make him come around. I do believe she made Tony a better husband.”
Dr. Melfi had one brush with Tony’s dark side, when she was brutally raped and had a chance at revenge merely by siccing Tony on her attacker. “Melfi is the moral through line of the series,” Ms. Bracco said. “Where would we have gone with that?”
For Ms. Bracco the highlights of the “Sopranos” experience were the scenes she shared with Mr. Gandolfini alone.
“I got to play with Muhammad Ali. I really got James at his finest.”