All Due Respect

"This thing of ours."

The phrase is a hushed acknowledgment, a hedge against uninvited ears. In 1999, an invitation was extended, and people around the world began a tutorial on the inner workings of an alleged waste-management firm in northern New Jersey. Eight years later, millions of people salt their vocabularies with phrases from their weekly sit-down with The Sopranos.
And it’s all because a Jersey guy’s mom was driving him nuts.

“My mother was this kind of strange and ornery character,” says David Chase. “I was working as a television writer and producer, but I was always thinking about movie ideas and trying to move into becoming a film writer and director, yet I could never get that break.

“My wife, Denise, would say, ‘You ought to write about your mother someday.’ I thought, What would be interesting about my mom and me? I mean, who wants to watch that? One day it hit me that it might be a commercial vehicle if it was about a Mafia guy and his difficult mother! I thought it would be funnier because here’s a real tough guy who’s cowed by his mother, as opposed to me, who isn’t a tough guy.”

Chase, who had crafted memorable characters as a writer for The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and I’ll Fly Away, had enough credibility in TV circles to get some meetings about his teleplay. “Fox said ‘Yes’ [when it was to be called Made In Jersey] and then dropped it due to the realness of it,” he says. Chase vowed to “go to the mattresses” for what he renamed The Sopranos—he brought the show to HBO. The executives’ only concern was the title. They feared viewers would think the show was about opera. Chase wasn’t budging, so they had the logo designed to replace the “r” in Sopranos with the image of a gun.

Many Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, and Screen Actors Guild awards later, the show widely regarded as cable’s best now averages about 11 million viewers per episode, is broadcast in 40 countries, and even has a cleaned-up version airing in syndication.

“I never thought I’d be doing stuff like this,” Chase says. “My mother and father were from Newark. We moved to Clifton when I was five, then we moved to North Caldwell, and I grew up around Essex County. All of my Italian-American background”—his grandfather changed the family name from DeCaesare to assimilate in America—“came out [in the Sopranos scripts], all the words my uncles used to use, the way people spoke in the house, the holidays and the crazy things going on.

“I had this basic knowledge about Mob involvement in the garbage industry; that wasn’t a secret. A large majority of that came from a gentleman by the name of Dan Castleton, who had prosecuted a case against the carting industry in the early 1990s. He ultimately became our technical consultant.”

Chase has long knelt at the altar of Scorsese. The show is full of nods, subtle or otherwise, to his favorite Mafia movies, but he fought the urge to go for every star in his favorite, Goodfellas. He needed an infusion of Jersey edginess and was determined to assemble the right crew. Ray Liotta was considered to play Tony Soprano, but Chase and casting director Georgianne Walken selected James Gandolfini. Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco had been featured in the saga of Mob turncoat Henry Hill, but The Sopranos took on a whole different feel. Actors with TV or film credits were often passed over for neophytes whose best credentials were, umm, life experiences. After all, you can’t have scenes in the Bada Bing with guys who don’t know how to stuff a dollar bill into a G-string.

“What’s the point about a résumé?” Chase asks. “What difference does it make how much training they’ve had if they’re not right for the role? We’d wait and we’d cast and cast and cast—and then finally someone would come in who really got it. You just smell the truth coming out of it and you feel it in every pore and go, ‘That’s the guy!’ There’s nothing to discuss. The problem is, it always felt like that person would never show up.”

But Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Nancy Marchand, Bracco, and Imperioli did. So did hey-I-know-that-guy actors such as Steven Van Zandt, Vince Curatola, Dominic Chianese, and Frank Vincent, followed by unknowns such as Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico.

“I don’t think there’s one of us who thinks that all of this is real,” says Vince Cu­ratola. The Englewood native, who recently moved to Saddle River, plays John “Johnny Sack” Sacramoni, the head of the New York City Mob. “We still say to ourselves, ‘How did this happen?’ I got the part when I was 45,” he says. “I wasn’t a kid! It’s an out-of-body experience.”

Curatola is among friends at Patsy’s Restaurant in Fairview, redolent of garlic and that local Jersey connection. He grew up down the street. His wife, Maureen, is from Englewood, too. Everyone knew him first from the family masonry business—it was his father’s before him, and Curatola’s son, Ryan, now runs it—not from the show, where he’s the New York don with the “Rubenesque” wife. Over the course of a five-hour food orgy, most diners walk by to pay their respects, but others pull up a chair to talk of front loaders, new construction jobs, and the demands of the business.

“I remember what it was like to pour ten foundations a day,” Curatola says. “Once in Union City a woman calls me. She’s back from work and hysterical. She doesn’t like the color of the cement I poured. She’s screaming, threatening not to pay, gonna sue me, whatever. She won’t listen to reason, so I jump in the truck, go over to her house, pull out a folding chair, sit and wait. Of course, it’s the right color when it’s dry, and of course she doesn’t apologize. It’s the nature of the business.”

Curatola got into acting at Maureen’s urging. “She heard it in my voice when I’d deal with customers on the phone, I guess. So I started auditing classes at Michael Moriarty’s workshop. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to do a monologue. But with Michael’s encouragement, I got some small parts on Law & Order. Then my agent got me the Sopranos audition. You know, I almost didn’t go. I am on the street, smoking a cigarette and just didn’t feel like it. I go up and they’re packing everything up. They look up at me, start unpacking, and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s been an amazing run ever since.”

Schirripa, who plays Bobby “Baccala” Baccalieri, Tony’s brother-in- law, had been a bouncer, sometime actor, comedy club host, and eventually a talent booker before he got snatched up for the role. “I had a nine-to-five job in Vegas, and I fly out to New York on my own dime. I didn’t want people to know I had a regular job. I didn’t want them to think, ‘Oh, this guy’s not a real actor.’

“So I get the job. I walk into my first scene and it’s with Stevie Van Zandt, Jim, and Tony Sirico. I mean, like two days ago I was watchin’ ’em on TV!

“That’s where I think David is brilliant,” Schirripa says. “He wasn’t afraid to take a chance with someone like myself who didn’t have much experience.”

“It’s an amazing dynamic,” says Curatola. “I don’t think anyone would believe the support we have. Tony ‘Paulie Walnuts’ Sirico and I were close for about six or seven years before the show started, and we all have these weird Jersey connections. When Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, was a teenager, he did mason work with David’s dad. There are some spooky things that popped up in the cast. We call it ‘six degrees of David Chase.’ There isn’t anything we wouldn’t do, or haven’t done, for each other. When we go out together, we have too much fun to only talk shop.”

“There’s a genuine love there, you know,” says Edie Falco, who plays Tony’s wife, Carmela. “It feels very much like family, with everything that entails. It makes for a fantastic vibe on the set. I hadn’t done enough of this to know how unusual that is, but I hear stories from other sets and think, Why do it then, for God’s sake?”

And that’s where “this thing of ours” gives way to “this thing of theirs.” The cast and crew have taken their own blood oath: Mess with one, you mess with them all. Curatola admits that it could be daunting for their guest stars. “It’s like being the new boyfriend. You gonna act overly familiar when you don’t really know the family yet? Don’t even try it. We’re going to be real nice to you, but don’t think you’re one of us.”

Falco may be the most acclaimed actor on the show besides Gandolfini, but she marvels at her on-screen husband’s ability to merge nuance, intelligence, and fury in a role that demands he be in virtually every scene.

“I had no idea how great it would be when we started,” says Falco. “We work so similarly in that we don’t talk about it from an analytical standpoint and say, ‘Oh, I think this is what happens here.’ We’re both visceral actors. He helps make the reality more multidimensional, just because he’s so present as an actor. I can’t imagine doing all these scenes all these years with someone who doesn’t inspire me as an actor.”

The hulking Gandolfini, born in Westwood and reared in Park Ridge, is a gentle soul who was reluctant to audition for the role of Tony because of the show’s violence. And he has long struggled with the emotional demands of playing the conflicted capo. During a photo shoot to coincide with a 2004 New Jersey Monthly interview, Gandolfini was happiest between setups just talking about watching SpongeBob SquarePants and playing with his young son. When asked to get into character for a particular shot, he demurred. “You know, I owe everything to Tony Soprano,” he said, “and I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but I am pretty freakin’ sick of him. When we’re filming, just because we wrapped for the day, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to flip a switch and be ready to head home to the family.”

But during a discussion about John Gotti, the late real-life Mob head, Gandolfini shed light on Tony Soprano and, by extension, the show’s appeal. “I know that macho stuff is a part of the Mafia thing,” he said, “and I think a lot of those gentlemen are like that, but human frailty and confusion are what interest me. The more sensitive the character and the more he’s in touch with things, the more confusion there is.”
Over the years, some Italian-American groups have claimed that Chase created The Sopranos with a brush that paints all Italians as mobsters, and vice versa.

“I thought that poetic license means you have freedom,” Curatola says. “I remember the Italian-American organizations coming out against us in public. I said, ‘Have any of you been to Arlington National Cemetery?’ And they responded by asking, ‘What does that have to do with it?’ ‘I’ll tell you!’ I said. ‘All of those markers, they’re all of those people who died so we can do what we do. Who are you to censor?’ You’d think they’d be happy that Italian-American actors are getting work, prosperity, and recognition.”

Curatola gets especially emotional when he talks about the cast’s bond. In 2004, they all flew out to Los Angeles for the Screen Actors Guild awards. His father was ill. Just as he arrived in L.A., his son, Ryan, called to tell him that his father passed away. “So HBO is there, of course, and they got us a flight in two hours to go back home,” he says. “So Maureen and I flew right back. That Sunday night, after we’d made the arrangements for my father’s funeral, we turn on the TV to watch the SAG awards and there’s Jimmy being interviewed on the red carpet before the show, saying, ‘We miss Vince Curatola. He had to fly home quick because his dad passed. But if we get this tonight we’re going to dedicate it to his father.’ We didn’t get it that night and that’s all right, but you know what? TV time is precious, and the fact he said that and delivered that message all over the world across the airways… I will never forget it.”

The last episodes are in the can. details are more closely guarded than the back room at Satriale’s. Omerta, the code of silence, is in full force. No matter which characters survive in the end, there will be a colossal, closed-door “whacking” party.

After “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero was sent to sleep with the fishes (and before he came back in Tony’s dreams as a fish), the surviving actors congregated at a restaurant called Il Cortile in Manhattan’s Little Italy to toast their fallen comrade and secretly breathe a sigh of relief that they’re still around. They’ve celebrated the Mob life of everyone who’s been whacked ever since. So what happens when they all get downsized?
“I think we’re all purposely focusing on the work right now,” Schirripa says. “No one is really talking about the end. It’s going to hit us eventually pretty hard, no question about it.”

“I definitely don’t feel myself going there yet,” Falco says. “But I will. The truth is, I have thoroughly inhabited Carmela’s life.”

“I believe the buildup is anticlimactic,” says Curatola. “Let’s hurry up and get this done, so we can walk away and say, ‘We did it.’ It feels like a funeral. Let’s hurry up and get to the church….Let’s get to the restaurant so we can go get drunk. Get it over with, and then we can just go on being friends.”

“The entire cast,” Bracco jokes, “could keep Dr. Melfi very busy with this new void in their life.”

The fate of Tony Soprano and his families have been in Chase’s mind for a long time, perhaps ever since he wrote the script for the pilot. “I wrote and directed the last episode,” he says. “I co-wrote the second-to-last episode, plus there’s all the interviews, publicity, the marketing and advertising…

“When I was a kid back in Jersey, I wanted to be in a band,” Chase says. “I was in a few garage bands growing up. But I always liked movies—old movies, new movies. Ultimately, we tried to make each episode like it’s a movie. I guess as it turns out I was just born to do this.”

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