The Sopranos stars look back on the programme that changed TV forever

Rao’s, an Italian restaurant in New York’s East Harlem, was known for its eclectic clientele and on any given night it wasn’t uncommon to see a mobster dining at a table next to a judge, with a celebrity such as Martin Scorsese holding court nearby. Naturally, the cast of TV’s The Sopranos was welcome (Rao’s owner, Frank Pellegrino, even had a recurring part in the series as the FBI bureau chief). And when actor Michael Imperioli, who played mobster Christopher Moltisanti, was having dinner there one night, ‘a guy came up to me – I had been told by someone who would know that he was a real Mafia guy – and told me he could demonstrate the real way to strangle someone with a piece of piano wire. He was kind of joking around, but it was still a little scary. I didn’t,’ Imperioli adds swiftly, ‘take him up on the offer.’

The cast of The Sopranos. From left: Joe Pantoliano, Steven Van Zandt, Aida Turturro, Tony Sirico, Edie Falco, Drea de Matteo, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Robert Iler

But then The Sopranos – a show about a New Jersey mob boss called Tony Soprano, whose attempts to juggle the conflicting demands of his professional and personal lives send him straight to the therapist’s office – drew admirers from all walks of life. The critics consistently labelled it ‘the greatest TV series of all time’, while FBI agents listening to wiretapped conversations of real wise guys would hear them discussing the show and commending it on its accuracy. As Steve Schirripa, who played mobster Bobby ‘Baccalà’ in the series says, ‘I used to joke that crime was down on Sunday nights because those guys were all at home watching the show.’

The Sopranos quickly turned its largely unknown actors into stars, none more so than James Gandolfini who, ‘overweight, bald and looking older than he was’, became an unlikely sex symbol as mob boss Tony Soprano.

The show lasted six gruelling seasons, by which time its creator David Chase and Gandolfini had had enough – both of the series and each other. Yet its popularity endures. To mark its 20th anniversary, Imperioli, Schirripa and Vincent Pastore (who played ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero) will be touring the UK in May for a series of ‘In Conversation’ shows that will go behind the scenes of the series and include an audience Q&A with the trio.

De Matteo with Imperioli. Not long into the first season, it was clear that The Sopranos had become a hit with the viewers

De Matteo with Imperioli. Not long into the first season, it was clear that The Sopranos had become a hit with the viewers

‘The show changed TV,’ says Schirripa, when we all meet up in New York. ‘Here was a murderer who’d done bad things to bad people – and good people – and the audience still rooted for him.’

‘When I first read the script, I couldn’t really see the scope of where it was going,’ admits Imperioli. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was a spoof or a comedy, yet it was also dark. There hadn’t been any hit shows on [cable network] HBO yet, so I also thought: “Is this their half-baked attempt at a dramatic series?” But I did like the people being cast, like Vinny Pastore, Edie Falco [who played Tony’s wife, Carmela] and Lorraine Bracco [Tony’s therapist, Dr Melfi]. Whenever they were casting for an Italian-American role in New York, I was always seen for it, so a bunch of us knew each other already.’

‘But nobody liked the name,’ adds Pastore. ‘It didn’t sound like a mobster show, it sounded like an acappella group. Some of the cast thought they were going up for a musical.’

The stroke of genius was the casting of Gandolfini – a journeyman actor who had toiled in relative obscurity for years playing minor mobster roles in films such as the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance.

‘He made Tony Soprano a very likeable family guy and it became really important to show the violence of Tony with things like his killing of my character in the final season,’ says Imperioli. ‘Because at the end of the day, he was a selfish, cold criminal.’

He adds, ‘Jim wasn’t at all like Tony Soprano. He didn’t talk like him and he was a hippy in real life in his shorts and Birkenstocks. He took his work seriously, but we had a lot of laughs and he used to prank Lorraine a lot – things like putting a whoopee cushion under her chair when they were doing a scene together.’

 Gandolfini was very generous. He’d send huge cheques to bail people out of trouble and they never knew it was him

Not long into the first season, it was clear that The Sopranos had become a hit with the viewers – so much so that a huge billboard of the cast members was erected in New York’s Times Square. ‘I’d actually lived in Times Square in my early 20s when it was still a dangerous place,’ says Imperioli, now 53. ‘And my girlfriend and I were held up at gunpoint one time. So to go from that to being on the billboard was pretty strange.’

Stranger still was the type of fans the cast were starting to attract. Imperioli, who also wrote five episodes of the show, would often get letters from people in jail who wanted him to tell their story, as well as from women enamoured with his character Christopher, the drug-addicted protégé of Tony Soprano who had a tendency to domestic violence. ‘I had one letter from this woman who had a weird fantasy of being with a volatile mobster who was physical with her.’ He grimaces. ‘That one went straight in the trash.’

The bear-like Gandolfini also drew a large female fan base, thanks in no small part to his character’s endless procession of mistresses. ‘Jim used to say: “TV is meant to put 10lb on you, but in my case it takes 50lb off!”,’ laughs Schirripa. ‘He became very popular.’

A genuine barometer of The Sopranos’ success, however, was when mobsters themselves started to praise the show’s authenticity. ‘Because it was set in New Jersey, there were New Jersey mobsters who were convinced it was about them specifically,’ says Imperioli. ‘But it really wasn’t – it was just very well researched. We had a consultant from the FBI who would give us details on how things worked in the mob – what businesses they’d be in, like construction or waste management or real estate – and how they’d move the money around.’ Naturally, there would be occasional quibbles about the series, from minor details (real mobsters objected to Tony wearing shorts during a barbecue scene ‘because he was the boss and therefore held to a higher standard’) to more major ones. ‘I had one guy who told me that he loved the show,’ says Schirripa, only for him to remark about one of the show’s numerous murder scenes: ‘But anyone who’s ever killed anyone knows that that’s not how it’s done’.

Says Pastore: ‘Some mobsters would tell the actors how to play the role, or complain that we were making them look bad. They didn’t like the fact that I was a popular character in the show because I played the informant. They didn’t like to glorify the rat.’

Pastore’s character ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero was a close friend of Tony’s, but after being forced to become an informant by the FBI, he was executed at the end of season two by the mob boss and his right-hand men Silvio and Paulie (Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico). It was the first time a major TV character had been killed off so early in a series for plot reasons, ‘and now every show from Breaking Bad to Game Of Thrones does it,’ says Pastore. ‘Tony and Stevie were very upset. They kept saying: “David, why are you getting rid of Vinny? He’s part of the family”. So there was a lot of tension on set.’

Afterwards, the entire cast was on edge. ‘We realised that if it could happen to Vinny, it could happen to anyone,’ says Schirripa. ‘After that, we’d all be checking through the scripts to see if we were going to be killed off that week.’

The unpredictability of the show, however, merely added to its appeal. Fans included Al Pacino, Keith Richards, and even Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Muhammad Ali also visited the set while Gandolfini was filming his coma scene during season six, and when he looked up to see the boxer standing in front of him, the surprised Gandolfini uttered, ‘Holy s***!’ as the rest of the cast applauded.

Vincent Pastore clashes with Piers Morgan in 2008¿s Celebrity Apprentice. The death of Gandolfini six years ago from a heart attack hit all of the cast members hard. ¿Jimmy was like my brother,¿ says Pastore

Vincent Pastore clashes with Piers Morgan in 2008’s Celebrity Apprentice. The death of Gandolfini six years ago from a heart attack hit all of the cast members hard. ‘Jimmy was like my brother,’ says Pastore

Some unexpected guest stars popped up on the show, including Ben Kingsley (Imperioli’s film buff character Christopher attempts to cast him in a mafia-slasher movie project) and Lauren Bacall, whom he robs of a luxury gift bag while on a trip to Hollywood. ‘She was a real trooper because in the scene, I had to punch her,’ says Imperioli. ‘I’d met her ten years prior to that when she was filming a movie in Paris. I never dreamed one day I’d end up mugging her on screen.’

After season four ended, filming had to be delayed when Gandolfini threatened to walk if HBO didn’t raise his salary. He eventually ended up earning a reported $1 million per episode, and as a thank you to the main cast members for sticking by him through the pay dispute, he gave 16 of them a cheque for $33,333 each. ‘That’s half a million dollars that he didn’t have to give away,’ says Schirripa. ‘He made a lot of money, but he also wanted to share it.’

‘He was a very generous guy,’ agrees Imperioli. ‘His assistant once told me that if he saw a story on the news about some person who had undergone a misfortune and was going to lose their house, he’d anonymously pay off their mortgage. He’d send huge cheques to bail people out of trouble and they never knew it was him.’

All the cast members attest to Gandolfini’s kindness and sensitivity and yet the pressure of carrying the hit show was starting to tell. He would occasionally fail to show up for work, and in papers relating to a divorce filing in 2002, his first wife, Marcy Wudarski, described his alleged issues with drugs and alcohol. It didn’t help either that the inherently shy Gandolfini was now one of the most famous men in America. ‘He wanted to be an actor,’ says Pastore. ‘He didn’t want to be a celebrity and he didn’t like the fame at all. I think that’s one of the reasons why the show ended, because Jimmy was telling David that he really wasn’t happy.’

Chase later admitted: ‘He was tired of me, for sure. And I was kind of tired of him.’ (Although the two went on to make the 2012 film Not Fade Away.) And in 2007, after 86 episodes, The Sopranos came to an end.

When the first season had premiered, ‘the party was in a small theatre and we went for pizza – that was the budget back then,’ says Pastore. But for the final episode, a special viewing party was held at Florida’s Hard Rock Hotel, with 10,000 people showing up just to catch a glimpse of the stars. ‘Then nine of the cast including Jim, Michael and me,’ says Schirripa, ‘sat and watched the final episode together.’ The ending, perhaps the most controversial finale ever, had the screen suddenly cut to black, leaving viewers uncertain as to whether Tony and his family survived their meal in a diner, or whether they were whacked by rival mobsters. ‘I’d read the script, so I knew that was going to happen, but when I saw it on screen, I said: “What the f*** is going on?”,’ laughs Schirripa.

‘I didn’t like it,’ admits Pastore. ‘I thought the public was short-changed. There was no closure.’ Many fans would agree. ‘People still ask me about the ending just about every day,’ says Schirripa.

For Schirripa, 62, The Sopranos transformed his career. He had been entertainment director at Las Vegas’s Riviera Hotel and acting was a mere side hobby when he landed the role as the sweet-natured Bobby ‘Baccalà’. Since the show ended, he has written six books and is currently starring in TV series Blue Bloods with Tom Selleck – this time playing a detective.

The end of the series didn’t consign Imperioli to the curse of typecasting either, and he went on to star in the Peter Jackson thriller The Lovely Bones, as well as in the US adaptation of the series Life On Mars. ‘I didn’t find it hard to adjust after The Sopranos ended because I’d done different things prior to the show – writing, independent films, theatre. I’ll sometimes do stuff that not a ton of people will see,’ he admits, ‘but that’s OK.’

Of the three, 73-year-old Pastore has perhaps had the most eclectic post-Sopranos career. He starred in the Guy Ritchie movie, Revolver, and became friends with his then-wife Madonna. ‘We shot some scenes on the Isle of Man and Madge, as I call her, hated it there. She said there was nothing to do after 6pm.’ He even appeared in the 2008 edition of Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by a pre-presidential Donald Trump and featuring the eventual winner, Piers Morgan. ‘I did not like Piers at all,’ says Pastore. ‘He was so jealous and so vindictive and he was trying to set me up as the rat. In the end I walked and Donald later said: “What did you quit the show for? I was going to fire him.” So, I’m not friends with Piers. I hated him.’ I tell Pastore he actually writes for this magazine. ‘In that case, I love you Piers!’ he jokes. ‘When I come to London, maybe we can have a spot of tea.’

The death of Gandolfini six years ago from a heart attack hit all of the cast members hard. ‘Jimmy was like my brother,’ says Pastore. ‘I keep expecting him to sit down now and order a drink.’

He was just 51 years old, but in The Sopranos alone, he left behind an incredible body of work, winning three Emmys and numerous other awards. The show itself won 21 out of its 111 Emmy nominations, ‘but The West Wing beat us a few times,’ says Schirripa. ‘Somebody joked that we should just beat them up and take their trophies.

‘We probably could have done too.’ 

In Conversation with The Sopranos will tour in the UK from May 12 to May 27, opening in Glasgow. Tickets on sale now