The Sopranos is one of a handful of shows that I’ve watched at different stages of my life, obviously with a different impression and focus at each age. I was eleven when the show debuted in 1999, and even though I was in the habit of (often surreptitiously) watching television that was “intended for mature audiences only,” this was one of the shows that didn’t become must-see-TV in my house until a couple of years later.
At that age, I was only aware of this show on HBO that was slowly gaining momentum and praise. The cast had yet to possess the star power that they would with each passing season, but I knew who James Gandolfini was. It seemed to me that his name quickly became synonymous with the phrase “unexpected sex symbol,” and I came to associate him with Dennis Franz, who, apart from looking exactly like my uncle and sharing a first name with him, was known only to me as That Guy Who Showed His Butt. Being interested mainly in David Duchovny at the time, and not overly enthusiastic about seeing the behind of a guy who looked like a blood relative, I didn’t really see what the big deal about Franz was… But Gandolfini was a different story.
Even at a young age, I could understand the attraction that many women seemed to have toward him, even if I hadn’t seen the show. It wasn’t merely about budding sexuality, but just recognizing this wonderful magnetism that he had. He seemed born to play Tony Soprano, no substitutes accepted. Properly casting the main character is key for any series, but I think there was probably extra pressure to get this one just right. There were pitfalls on either side: casting an unknown, such as Gandolfini, would add to the ever-present challenge of hooking an audience.
Erring on the side of caution and casting Ray Liotta, one of Chase’s first choices (get your tongue around that one), would have been typecasting, and would have made the show less interesting, even with the big-name attachment, especially if he had succeeded in hooking Lorraine Bracco to play Carmela. It would have been Goodfellas for the small screen; star-studded, but not particularly innovative. A series headed by Bracco and Liotta would have been too Hollywood, too slick and sexy, and there is really nothing sexy about these characters’ lives. There wasn’t about Karen and Henry’s either, but that was Scorsese. Same diamond, different ball game.
Do you love her?
To be more specific, “Whitecaps” would not have been nearly as effective with these two when we’ve already seen them torn apart by drugs and infidelity. However well or uniquely scripted, a Bracco/Liotta fight as Carm and Tony would instantly invite comparisons to Karen and Henry’s screaming matches about the same subject.
There are easy parallels between the Whitecaps fights and Karen (KAHHHRENNN!) and Henry’s fight over his so-called whores. The beleaguered wives both suffer emotional breakdowns over their husband’s adulterous ways. Karen’s, interestingly, comes much sooner than Carmela’s, only several years (at least six) into their relationship. Karen seems either oblivious to the fact that goomars were part and parcel of living la vida mob wife, or she just never thought it would happen to her. Either way, she confronts him violently, feeling as though she has, like Carm, been made a fool of.
Henry initially takes a gentler approach to Karen, reassuring her that he loves her, which Tony, annoyingly, does not do. (And I don’t think he’s just paying her lip service to talk her down.) But then he throws her off the bed and turns the gun on her. Buckling under the pressure of staying one step ahead of everyone else, and unable to cope with one more threat, he grabs her by the throat, screaming that he should just kill her now. “How does it feel, huh? How do you feel, Karen?” He then punches the bedside table before storming out of the room.
During their first fight, Tony throws Carmela against their bedroom wall as she pleads for him to let go of her. He backs off, stopping just short of striking her, but his release is rough. His hand later goes through their kitchen wall, where she stood only seconds earlier, revealing her fantasies about Furio. These are rare displays of physical anger toward their wives; anger usually reserved for other opponents.
Karen and Carmela also make sure the other women know where they stand (or lie) in all of this. Karen destroys Janice Rossi over her apartment’s intercom. Carmela capitalizes on her status as a mob wife, threatening to kill Irina herself if she ever calls again. Don’t you talk to her about pecking order.
Eventually, both women take their goddamned men back. If they had even been able to make it as far as the fourth season, this now-famous episode could have simply been ho-hum, instead of the tour de force that it is.
Had we seen Liotta play opposite Bracco as Melfi, it would have been an interesting dynamic, but likely ruined by our almost automatic association of them with Karen and Henry. I have no doubt that they have the acting chops to try to make us forget what we’ve seen, but it would have been a difficult sell. I don’t see that the show could have lasted long with either of them in a leading role.
“What do you do?”
With this casting in mind, Melfi’s oft-quoted introductory query about Tony’s profession, and his equally famous reply of “waste management consultant,” loses some impact when stacked against a nearly identical scene between Karen and Henry. After that glorious Steadicam entrance, in which Karen’s suspicions about how Henry makes a living first arise, she notices the generous tip that he gives the waiters. Twenty bucks each just for seating them at a table? A table that has been brought in specially for them? Now she has to know.
She asks point blank, “what do you do?” Henry dodges the question (purposely, to buy time?), forcing her to repeat it, before finally answering that he is in construction. He focuses his eyes on the stage, avoidant. Touching his hand, Karen flirts.”They don’t feel like you’re in construction.” He dodges again, ignoring even the flirtation, telling her that he’s a union delegate. Fancy. Believable. (I like the rimshot after he says it.)
Picturing Liotta’s Soprano glibly delivering the waste management line leaves me cold. I’ve already heard this story, and so has Melfi in another life. There is no way to get around introductions or exposition, so omitting it would be impossible. Scenes like these, with more in common than not, would have crossed that fine line between inspiration and parody. Simply sharing 28 cast members is enough.
Home of the burger, what’s your beef?
Why else not Liotta? He’s too pretty. This in no way diminishes his talent, but he did make his screen debut as a soap opera stud on Another World. Soap actors often have a difficult time breaking into the mainstream and being taken seriously as “real” actors because of the emphasis on looks over talent. It doesn’t matter if you can’t cry convincingly, as long as you look hot at Johnny’s funeral when he dies for the third time that year. Liotta’s abilities obviously match his looks, but Hollywood hotness was ultimately not David Chase’s goal. Edie Falco has commented on his commitment to casting “real people,” cracking that he was probably the only showrunner who encouraged his actors to gain weight between seasons. Cannoli for everyone!
Liotta is very good at being very bad, with the ability to soften when necessary, like Gandolfini. He’s doing a fine job of playing the thoroughly hateful Matt Wozniak on Shades of Blue, which also stars Drea de Matteo. His blue eyes can be as scary as they can be seductive, but he’s still not my Tony Soprano.
Fun fact: Liotta was later approached to play Ralphie, but mercifully turned it down. I don’t want to imagine him sporting a Nick Carter haircut and killing a girl outside of a strip club. I’d hate him too much and I don’t want to hate Ray.
David Proval, who went on to play Richie Aprile, auditioned for the leading role, as did Stevie Van Zandt and Michael Rispoli. Rispoli took an unintentionally comedic approach to Tony Soprano. His natural “wiseguy cadence” bled through, colouring the character a brighter shade than necessary. But he is physically closer to what Chase must have had in mind, if Gandolfini is any indication, tending toward the Regular Guy side of things. Even though Jackie is the acting boss of the DeMeo family, Rispoli lacks the gravitas to carry a show about a cold-blooded killer with an affinity for ducks.
Proval has the dark Italian looks. Google suggests that he and young Al Pacino totally look alike. I can see it now, even though it hadn’t crossed my mind before. He’s a little closer to De Niro to me. Put all three in a line-up and I’d tell you they were brothers. A stereotypically Italian-looking leading man would again reduce the individuality and intrigue. There is already an array of films to choose from if that’s what I want.
(l-r: Proval, De Niro, Pacino. See a pattern emerging here, Scully?)
Proval was 55 in 1997 when the pilot was filmed, fifteen years older than the 40-year-old Soprano. He has proved himself to be a strong character actor (see 1973’s Mean Streets or 1995’s Shawshank Redemption), making him perfect for the supporting role of Richie. Speaking of Richie (Finestra), there was something in Proval’s performance on this week’s Vinyl that made me think of Gandolfini. Something about the hair and suspenders and Fuck Me? Fuck You! carriage. All that was missing was a cigar.
Van Zandt had a similar look when he was younger, but by the time the 90s rolled around, he had lost a little of the smoldering intensity necessary for the role. HBO also felt that they needed someone with experience, which Van Zandt lacked, but more than made up for in charisma and natural talent. He has the perfect mien for the snappily-dressed consigliere, bringing a certain goofiness to Silvio, a character that Van Zandt had originally created for a short story. That goofy, secret-teddy-bear quality is also present in Gandolfini, but again, these are two men who seemed born to play the roles that they did. Fate knocked…
Gandolfini doesn’t look like any of these men and that’s part of why it works. Not only is it the chemistry between him, Falco, and Bracco that makes the show what it is, but it’s that Regular Folk appeal. It’s the fact that you could walk out your front door and see someone who looked like him, and maybe wonder, “is he or isn’t he?”
When I was staying with a friend a few years ago, I’d watch their neighbour across the street shuffle out in his white robe and slippers to grab the morning paper at the end of his driveway. He was balding and paunchy, and completely oblivious to the fact that I called him Tony Soprano until I left. When I pass that house now, I cast an ear toward the basement window, in case he, too, has been rejected by his local golf club.
Looks aside, it is ultimately James’ undeniable presence and approach to the role that makes him special. He has an instantly detectable sweetness and vulnerability about him that is essential to creating a strong connection to Tony Soprano. In order to feel anything for this guy, whether it be love or hatred, or both in one moment, to willingly let him into our lives each week to follow his unspeakable acts, there must be some endearment. Danger and drama are intriguing, but it is ultimately heart that holds an audience captive. Commingled with the moments of destruction led by him are odd moments of connection, even minute understanding. Even if you can accuse Tony of being heartless, is he always so? No. And even if you say yes, the fact would remain that Gandolfini is not, and that is why he wins us over. Charisma and intuition beat acting cred and connections any day.
Anything I could say about Van Zandt’s, Rispoli’s, or Proval’s take on the character is pure speculation since we may never know how they read for the part (got some tapes for us, David?), but it was Gandolfini who intuitively tapped into the heart of Tony Soprano, even before his creator:
“Jim Gandolfini had a lot to do with Tony’s personality. And this was done without much conversation. I think the Tony Soprano that I was originally thinking of was not as tough as what the character became. Jim showed me early on how much of a prick that guy would have to be. We never talked about it. I just saw it. The first day we shot, there was a scene where Christopher said he was going to sell his story to Hollywood. In the script, it said something like, Tony slaps him. But when we shot it, all of a sudden Jim was out of his seat. He picked Michael Imperioli up by the neck, by the collar, had him almost off the ground and said, “What?! Are you crazy?” And I thought, Of course, that man’s a motherfucker. That guy is surviving the mob. He’s really a dangerous person. He’s not a fun guy.” – David Chase, 2014.
This brings me full-circle to the point that glamour is not The Sopranos’ goal: Reality, with its inevitable hills, valleys, plateaus, and chasms, is. That is the landscape of our lives, whether we are made in America or not.