A Missing Star, A Cast Revolt and a Lady Gaga Cameo: 20 Fascinating Facts About The Sopranos You Probably Forgot

In honor of HBO's seminal drama turning the big 2-0 on January 10.

By Billy Nilles Jan 10, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, The SopranosAnthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Bada-bing, baby. The Sopranos is turning 20!

It's hard to believe, but it's been two decades since HBO introduced the world to Tony Soprano and his wild world of wiseguys on Jan. 10, 1999, making James Gandolfini a star and changing TV as we know it. The trend of anti-heroes that's ruled the small screen until this very day? You can thank David Chase's creation for that.

And of course, all of the talk about the seminal cable series on this special occasion will center around the controversial way Chase chose to wrap things up. Or not, as it were. And rightly so. The debate has raged on to this day over whether or not Tony Soprano got whacked right there in that booth with his family, munching on onion rings as Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" played on the diner jukebox. And Chase, who admitted in 2015 that he didn't think it would spark quite the reaction it did when he wrote, is loathe to discuss what, exactly happened after the screen cut to black.

The Sopranos: Where Are They Now?

In the new book The Sopranos Sessions, TV critics Alan Sepinwill and Matt Zoller Seitz discuss the ending with the creator, who, according to The Atlantic, described his vision for the end of the series as "a death scene."

"Yes, I think I had that death scene around two years before the end … Tony was going to get called to a meeting with Johnny Sack in Manhattan, and he was going to go back through the Lincoln Tunnel for this meeting, and it was going to go black there and you never saw him again as he was heading back, the theory being that something bad happens to him at the meeting. But we didn't do that," Chase said.

When called out on his interesting choice of words in the book, Chase replied, "F--k you guys."

And like that, the debate will likely rage on for 20 more years, at least.

But what's not up for debate is that, for six season, Chase's mob drama kept audiences riveted while some more than interesting stuff went down behind the scenes. So before you go stare at the ducks in your pool a la Tony, celebrate The Sopranos' milestone anniversary with a trip down memory lane, reliving these 20 fascinating facts about the making of the show that you probably forgot.

The Initial Pitch

Creator David Chase originally envisioned his story about a mobster who enters into therapy to talk out the problems he has with his mother as a feature film starring Robert de Niro. "A few years after I came up with this pitch, I had one of my first meetings at Brillstein-Grey. My manager, Lloyd Braun, walked me to the elevator after the meeting and said, 'I want you to know that we believe that you have inside you a great television series,'" he told Tom Fontana in a conversation for the May 2007 issue of Written By. "Huh? I had never thought that way. I didn't care about creating a series. Really. But I was, I guess touched is the word. I was moved by this confidence. I didn't think he was bullshitting."

He sold the pilot to Fox in 1995, who quickly passed on the finished script, as did every other network, until HBO came to the rescue. 

First Choice for Tony

It's hard to imagine anyone else smoking Tony Soprano's cigars but James Gandolfini, but creator David Chase initially had someone else in mind for the iconic role: Bruce Springstreen's E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt! "Steven came on VH1, when they were inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Steven gave the speech. He was very, very funny and magnetic," Chase told Vanity Fair in 2012. "I said to my wife, 'That guy has got to be in the show!'"

"David wanted me for Tony, and we have the formality of going out and auditioning for HBO. It was a very funny moment. In the waiting room—I swear to God this is true—I'm going out to audition, and I see Jimmy Gandolfini sitting there," Van Zandt told the publication. "Now, I don't know if he was there because HBO had decided they were not going to cast me because I'd never acted before—which is what they ended up telling David—or whether Jimmy was there for another part. I never asked him."

Van Zandt, of course, went on to star as Silvio Dante on the series for its entire run.

First Choice for Carmela

And just as hard as it is to picture anyone else but James Gandolfini playing Tony, it's equally as difficult to imagine anyone other than Edie Falco playing his wife Carmela. But it was Lorraine Bracco who was initially in consideration. "After doing GoodFellas, I was offered every Mafia gal, girl, wife, mistress, daughter available. And I said to them, 'No, I don't want to do that. I did it. Can't do it better,'" she told Vanity Fair in 2012. "I called up my agent the day before I'm going in to meet David, and I go, 'I don't want Carmela—I want Dr. Melfi.'"

A Different Role for Drea de Matteo

Drea de Matteo may have catapulted to fame thanks to her unforgettable performance as Christopher's girlfriend Adriana La Cerva (may she rest in peace), but it almost never happened. During initial casting, creator David Chase told her she "wasn't Italian enough for the show," the actress told the Daily Herald in 2014. "I thought it was about opera singers. I had my hair back in a ponytail with no New York accent," she admitted. "Had I known what the show was about I would have been more prepared."

Despite her rough audition, she earned a one-line role as an unnamed hostess and eventually won Chase over with her performance. "I went from being a day player to a recurring character to a series regular," de Matteo said. "It was all David Chase having faith in me. If I'd auditioned, I wouldn't have gotten the part. I got really lucky."

Robert Iler's Arrest

While the course of The Sopranos watched Tony's son A.J. flirt with his father's criminal lifestyle at times, life began to imitate art in 2001, as season three was airing, when the young actor who played the crime boss' son, Robert Iler, was arrested in New York and charged with the armed robbery of two Brazilian tourists and possession of marijuana. He was only 16 at the time. Iler eventually pleaded guilty to a single count of larceny and was given three years' probation.

Jamie-Lynn Sigler's Intervention

In 2005, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who starred as Tony's daughter Meadow, came clean about about her battle with exercise bulimia that had become her main "source of control" during the show's early days. And she credits her eventual ability to overcome the disorder, in part, to producers on the show. "The Sopranos was a big thing, because they had asked me to put on weight," she told Huffington Post in 2015. "They were concerned, I think, for my health, but [also], they just didn't feel I was the picture of a girl that lived in an Italian household that ate pasta all the time, so they were big catalysts in me taking a step back and realizing the issue."

And the (History-Making) Emmy Goes to...

After becoming the first cable TV series to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series in its first year eligible, The Sopranos became the first such series to take home the honor in 2004 after four prior nominations. The celebrated show not only ushered in the age of the TV anti-hero, but it helped foster the careers of producers who would go on to create or produce Mad Men (Matthew Weiner), Boardwalk Empire (Terence Winter), Damages (Todd A. Kessler), Girls (Ilene S. Landress) and Chicago Med (Diane Frolov).

The Real Bada-Bing

While the show mostly filmed on soundstages at Silvercup Studios in Queens, they did venture out on location in New York and New Jersey at times. And any time Tony and his crew were at the iconic Bada-Bing strip club, that was a real place, known in the real world as Satin Dolls, a "gentlemen's club" on State Route 17 in Lodi, NJ.

A CGI Livia

When David Chase cast Nancy Marchand as Tony's mother, Livia Soprano, he knew the actress wasn't long for this world. "She had cancer the whole time we worked with her, but it was not spoken of," Edie Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. "Nancy said to David, 'Please keep me working. That's keeping me alive.'"

She passed away of lung cancer and emphysema in 2000, while Chase and his writers were already at work on scripts for the third season. Having to cut her story short, but knowing how central his relationship with Livia was in Tony's story, the creator felt compelled to write the death into the show. And they got creative when it came time to putting Livia's final scenes on screen, using outtakes of old scenes while also CGI'ing Marchand's head onto another actress' body. It marked one of the first instances of using CGI to solve the issue of an absent actor and it was not well received by critics. "Avert your eyes; the scene is excruciating to watch," Slate wrote of the episode.

Tony Sirico's Colorful Past

Tony Sirico didn't have to look far for inspiration when playing the memorable character Paulie Walnuts. Prior to becoming an actor, he'd been arrested 28 times, convicted of several crimes, and completed two separate stints behind bars. Alleged to be an associate of the Colombo crime family "Caporegime" Jimmy "Green Eyes" Clemenza during the late '60s and early '70s, he and his Sopranos co-star Vincent Pastore were seen meeting with Clemenza and his brother at a Christmas party in Little Italy in 1999, while Clemenza was under FBI surveillance. 

The Inspiration for Dr. Melfi

As much as The Sopranos was about the mafia, it was also a show deeply concerned with psychiatry, as evidenced by Tony's sessions with Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi. And it turns out that David Chase drew from his own life in creating the character. "My last therapist, Lorraine Kaufman in L.A., is the model for Dr. Melfi. She had the same way of cutting through your bulls--t," he told Rolling Stone in 2006, before adding that she played a part in the development of his characters. "After three or four seasons, she wrote me a breakdown of the Soprano family. This is not a bible, but every once in a while we get it out," he said. "Strangely enough, these fictional characters have, in fact, behaved in the way she predicted they might, even though we might have forgotten she ever wrote it.

Gandolfini's Generosity

After season four, production on The Sopranos came to a halt due to a pay dispute with HBO. As Edie Falco explained in Vanity Fair's 2012 oral history of the show, there's was an "Occupy Vesuvio" sit-in on the set before star James Gandolfini stepped up and forked over his own earnings to get the show back on the road. "Jim called all the regulars into his trailer and gave us $33,333 each, every single one of us," Steven Schirripa revealed. "He said, 'Thanks for sticking by me.'"

An Inside Man?

As executive producer Terence Winter revealed in Vanity Fair, the show had such reach that real mobsters were watching the show and struck by how true-to-life it was. "One F.B.I. agent told us early on that on Monday morning they would get to the F.B.I. office and all the agents would talk about The Sopranos. Then they would listen to the wiretaps from that weekend, and it was all Mob guys talking about The Sopranos, having the same conversation about the show, but always from the flip side," he told the publication in 2012. "We would hear back that real wiseguys used to think that we had somebody on the inside. They couldn't believe how accurate the show was."

Making Contact

Not only were mafiosos watching, but they had notes. During an appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, James Gandolfini revealed that he'd received multiple phone calls from "wiseguys" who complimented the actor on his work. But during one early call, the caller critiqued the shorts Tony wore to a neighborhood BBQ in the show's pilot. 'A don never wears shorts," the guy told the actor over the phone. And from then on, Tony never wore shorts again.

Gandolfini's Demons

At the end of 2002, James Gandolfini's demons nearly got the best of him as the world learned through papers related to a divorce filing that all was not well. "Gandolfini's wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration," author Brett Martin wrote in his 2013 book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, as excerpted in GQ. "To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera—he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head—it was a plausible scenario."

In response to his wife Marcy's filing, Gandolfini's spokesman confirmed that the actor had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse but claimed "it was a problem that existed in the past."

Where's James?

James Gandolfini had a passive-aggressive habit of simply not showing up to set, sometimes going days without calling. One such time in 2002, he disappeared for four days, causing a huge financial loss, with some involved expecting the actor to turn up dead. But then the show's production office received a phone call from him, phoning from a beauty salon in Brooklyn. As Brett Martin wrote in his book Difficult Men, "To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, asking to use the phone. He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home."

John Gotti's Influence

Notorious mob boss John Gotti may have been serving a life sentence when The Sopranos debuted, but that didn't stop him from have some sort of influence on the series (aside from the obvious mafia of it all). As confirmed in a 2009 Guardian feature on star Steve Van Zandt, when the member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band landed the role of Silvio Dante, he reached out the Gotti's tailor to have the man make his bespoke suits for the series.

The Goodfellas Connection...

The Sopranos didn't just share its subject matter with the classic 1990 mob movie Goodfellas. Six series regulars appeared in the film (Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, and Frank Vincent), while ten recurring cast members and 11 one-time guests stars did as well.

...and the One That Could've Been

In a 2001 interview on the Today show, Ray Liotta said he was offered an unspecified part on the show, but turned it down to focus on his film career. He elaborated on the reasoning in a 2003 interview with university newspaper The GW Hatchet, explaining, "Having done Goodfellas, I mean, that's pretty much the ultimate in Mafia everyday life. And that show is pretty much structured around Tony Soprano. There was no way I was gonna shine. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do. I love him [James Gandolfini] as an actor. I think he's great. But my ego's as big as anybody's."

Introducing Stefani Germanotta

Lady Gaga got her first acting role courtesy of the HBO series, appearing in a 2001 episode as "Girl at Swimming Pool #2" at just 15 years old. As a classmate at A.J.'s high school, she get a good laugh when some punks toss their teacher's desk into the pool. 

The future pop star isn't the show's only shocking cameo worth talking about, either. The Sopranos also welcomed Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael B. Jordan, Chandra Wilson, Will Arnett and Tony Hale in bit roles over the years.

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