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Twenty years on from The Sopranos

‘People have been calling me Big Pussy for 20 years!’

January 11, 2019

2:19 PM

11 January 2019

2:19 PM

This week marks 20 years in the can for The Sopranos, the TV series which almost instantly transformed into a ‘cultural phenomenon,’ although the term ‘cultural phenomenon’ is exactly the kind of cliche that most characters on the show probably would have hated. Indeed, it’s not a moniker particularly embraced by the show’s creator, David Chase, who always seemed to project a bit of depressive resignation about his role front-running the series. Asked at a panel event Wednesday night what his reaction was to the anniversary hooplah, Chase simply responded: ‘Well, confused.’

The Sopranos today has a somewhat confused legacy, because two decades later it’s firmly entered into the realm of nostalgic reminiscence. While it was kind of thrilling to see the entire main cast assembled in one room (absent James Gandolfini of course, and a couple of other supporting actors who have died) – in a way, the actors are the worst people to ask about the show’s wider cultural impact. To them producing the series had a feel of some hidden private engagement, while the ensuing reaction was a bit surreal and almost… violating. ‘It’s like our secret,’ relayed John Ventimiglia, who played anxiety-ridden restaurant proprietor Artie Bucco, until one day you’re walking down the street, random pedestrians pepper you with questions about some plot development, and you realize ‘other people are in on it.’ Ironically, the actors themselves were probably the most estranged from the broader discussion the show inevitably prompts. That said, witnessing all the characters in the same room together, having some laughs and ‘breaking balls,’ was pretty great.

For me, The Sopranos always had extra layers of resonance. There were certain pieces of dialogue – as minute as references to particular street intersections – that you could only fully appreciate if you were familiar with an astonishingly small speck of western Essex County, New Jersey, which is where I happened to grow up. The level of dialectical specificity was just amazing: you felt like you’d interacted with countless guys who could easily pass for Sopranos associates. Not just any generic mob associates, either: but people who happened to live in that exact, tiny span of geographic territory, which was distinct from other parts of New Jersey, and also distinct from New York, which more often typifies the popular conception of mafia characters. This dynamic was often poked fun at on the show, with Tony Soprano’s operation being derisively referred to by antagonists in Brooklyn as ‘a glorified crew.’

Matt Zoller Seitz, the panel moderator, seemed to ask questions of the cast that could’ve been asked at any other point in the last 20 years, about topics which they’ve doubtless talked about ad nauseum before: how did you get on the show, what were the auditions like, what were some memorable moments, did you think it would get as big as it got. Nothing that especially prompted reflection on the show’s steady slide into ‘cultural nostalgia’ territory, but then again – maybe there wasn’t a whole lot that really could’ve been asked in that vein. After all, they were ultimately just actors reading scripts.

Back in the late Nineties, The Sopranos seemed like a luxury commodity. Now, bolstered by the near-ubiquity of TV streaming services, it no longer has quite the same ‘forbidden fruit’ feel. I remember back when watching the show was a real struggle, involving circumvention of parental dictates, and figuring out ways to surreptitiously access HBO on Sunday nights. Covertly receiving the first season DVD box-set was a real accomplishment. Now, anyone can press two buttons and binge-watch the entire series. Maybe that eliminates some of the initial luster; an ineluctable product of the descent into nostalgia-land.

After the panel I spoke to Robert Iler, also known as Anthony Jr. (or AJ), and naturally my first instinct was to ask about the presumed tedium of constantly talking about this relatively brief period in his childhood when he happened to work for a popular TV show. At 33, he is still answering questions about auditioning for a role as an 11-year-old. Regularly, strangers approach him and shout the famous line he uttered in the pilot episode, which aired on January 10, 1999: ‘So what, no fuckin’ ziti now?’ By Iler’s telling, it was his annunciation of ‘fuck’ that most endeared David Chase and got him the job. But at a certain point, you have to assume reliving this part of his early adolescence has to be beyond wearisome. ‘You weigh the positives and the negatives, and you’re like: this is what it gave me, and this is what you gotta do,’ he told me. ‘I could be answering way worse questions, “What was it like to clean this toilet?”’ Fair enough. Now, Iler has taken up residence in Las Vegas and appears to spend a large chunk of his time playing poker.

You get the sense that Chase’s attitude toward this whole anniversary affair is one of begrudging, if appreciative, acceptance: doing a major press junket, talking about the ending of the series for the umpteenth time, going through the motions. It seems like he wasn’t ever especially mindful of the huge cultural significance attributed to the show, and in fact quite disdained it. So he approaches attempts by journalists to get him to riff about the show’s ‘impact’ with a hint of good-natured dismissiveness.

Panel participant Tony Sirico, or Paulie, seems frail and somewhat absent-minded. During the panel, he constantly forgot to use the microphone to speak, requiring Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) to tap him on the arm several times as a reminder that the audience could not hear him without the aid of a handheld amplification device. Maybe a small detail, but it seemed emblematic of something; maybe inevitable decline, maybe of the inseparability of the character and the man. David Chase let slip that he gave the character Paulie germophobia, because Sirico himself was a fanatical hand-washer, and the real-life hangup worked as kind of a dark in-joke for the purposes of comic relief. Sirico is now 76, so there’s nothing particularly strange about his aging process. Still, it’s a bit sad.
Aside from any discussion of the setbacks of the nostalgic impulse, or the show’s political undertones, or whatever else, there were a handful of priceless moments in the panel that made you forget all the rest:

  • Series writer Terry Winter revealed that ahead of the second season, Sirico told him: ‘If you ever write a script where I die, you fuckin’ die!’
  • Vincent Pastore recollecting his thrill about getting the part of Big Pussy, but adding with a mixture of humor and consternation: ‘I’m gonna tell you something David and Terry, people have been calling me Big Pussy for 20 years!’
  • Dominic Chianese, still sharp as ever at age 87, disclosing that he based the hilarious character Uncle Junior on a conglomeration of the fellas he used to know as a kid in the Bronx: ‘a priest, a butcher, a racketeer.’
  • Recalling the scene where he got up and sang a Neapolitan ballad, Chianese modeled his performance on the Italian wedding tradition where ‘the old men would get a couple of glasses of wine, and they’d go up there, and they’d try to be Frank Sinatra.’ The only twist was that Uncle Junior was belting out a tune at a funeral, after somebody’d gotten brutally murdered.
  • ‘You came in one day, I think it was season four, and said “man, I just heard ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ on the radio. That’s a great fuckin’ song,”’ the writer Winter reminded Chase. Somewhat incongruously, the crooning Journey hit would later find its way into the show’s legendary final scene.
  • As the panel closed, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ predictably played over the loudspeakers as an outro, and Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi) performed a humorous solo dance.
  • Michael Imperioli, Christopher on the show, compared the discomfort of his initial audition to a colonoscopy.
  • A leak from one of the scripts ended up in the hands of ‘some guy from Budd Lake,’ David Chase revealed – so a random individual in Morris County, NJ apparently had illicit access to plot developments at some point, despite CIA-level protections instituted to guard against such breaches.
  • Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the Soprano daughter Meadow, appearing to tear up onstage when Vincent Curatola, who played the New York crime boss Johnny Sack, talked about his character’s painful death from lung cancer and relayed that his family has still never been able to watch the episode.
  • Jerry Adler, who portrayed the Soprano family’s Jewish loan shark associate Hesh Rabkin, revealed that when they shot their final scene together, Gandolfini told him, in a drawn out melancholy: ‘I am so tired. Will this ever be over?’ No one quite says it outright, but it seems like a reasonable inference that the Tony Soprano character quite literally killed Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in 2013.
  • Furio, the show’s enigmatic import from Italy played by Federico Castelluccio, taking frantic selfies with middle-aged men who seemed just a little too excited.

Even with all the levity and Paulie wisecracks, a bit of myth-busting was in order. Some in the audience seemed dismayed to discover that the epic onscreen relationship between Tony and Carmela, which defined so much of the psychological core of the series, wasn’t the product of some deep personal connection between the two actors. ‘We never talked about the characters, or their backstory,’ Edie Falco confided about her dealings with Gandolfini. ‘We would get the lines, and we would look at each other, and we would do the scene.’ Seems like a somewhat mundane insight, but coming from Falco it’s a bit of a revelation, considering all the monumental significance that was attributed to the Tony/Carmela saga. ‘I didn’t really know much about his real life, his personal life,’ Falco said. ‘We didn’t hang out. We weren’t particularly close, even. We were really just this pretend couple.’

And there, again, is the irony. The public has had so much invested in the show, for so long now, that they want the people involved in its production to give them profound guidances and moral truths which don’t appear to exist. Asked about why he forewent any musical score in the show – a novelty at the time, seeing as the technique is so often used to foist emotional responses upon audiences – Chase said, ‘I just don’t want people being told how to feel.’ And yet he’s spent year after year being asked for clarification as to how the audience should feel about his artistic product; now a full 20 years later, it’s still going on. You could see how that would offend his sensibilities, wear on him, to the point of resentment. I wanted to ask him about the tedium of this current press junket, where he’s been made to opine on Trump (of course) and relive the series ending for the eight millionth time, but not surprisingly he slipped out of the theater with shrewd, cat-like briskness. I can’t say I blame him.

In the final season of the show – its darkest, and if you ask me, best – Tony burned through his personal relationships with increasingly sadistic gusto. He contemplated whacking Paulie, he rebuffed longtime advisor Hesh, he stood by as numerous members of his inner-circle got murdered at the hands of the encroaching New York gang faction. He reconciled with Carmela, but only for transactional reasons, rather than love. He watched Uncle Junior descend into a demented stupor. His kid tried to off himself. He derided ‘Remember When?’ as ‘the lowest form of conversation.’ There was no nostalgia to be had in those final episodes. Chase, it seemed, underscored that to the max when he left viewers with zero climactic gratification except for a screen filled with black nothingness. It was confusing, and it was supposed to be. Now, 20 years later, the platitudes Tony rejected have snuck their way into an obligatory anniversary celebration. It was inevitable, but almost doesn’t feel quite right. To remember The Sopranos in such a saccharine manner is to cut against the prevailing ethos of the show. Still, though, there’s nothing better than a well-timed Paulie wisecrack.


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