Many people agree: there’s television before The Sopranos and there’s television after The Sopranos. The HBO hit was a masterclass in storytelling and acting that paved the way for some of the best shows we enjoy today.
12 years after its final episode aired, we can now see where its place in history is. Just how much of an impact did it make, and what is its legacy today? We examine one of the most acclaimed shows of all time.
HBO Needed A New Audience
Cast your mind back to 1998. VHS rentals were at an all-time high and people were spending more of their time and money renting films and TV shows. HBO needed a new show to increase their subscription numbers and attract a new, younger audience.
HBO has been known to push the boundaries of television due to the fact that it isn’t set with the same restrictions as other cable stations. It sought an R-rated, movie-like show that would explore a new part of the world.
Setting The Stage
It was only six months previously when HBO first aired the pilot of Sex and the City. Audiences had not yet met Tony and the other Sopranos, but they were busy falling in love with the women of New York.
Executives at HBO knew that while one show would focus on the glitz and glam of city living, they wanted another show that would highlight some of the grime of everyday life in the suburb. Little did they know at the time, but this would set the stage for some of the most iconic shows of all time.
The Sopranos Changed The Game
By creating a show focused on the family life of a mafia boss, showrunner David Chase had the opportunity to create complicated characters and long-running storylines that went deeper than usual.
Little did he know at the time, but The Sopranos would be one of the first cases of a ‘binge-worthy’ TV show. In the next coming years, the show would pave the way for Netflix shows like Orange Is The New Black. But what was the reaction when it aired?
Never Seen Before
When audiences first tuned into The Sopranos, they didn’t know what they were looking at. Usually, people would be tuning into studio sitcoms like Friends, Fraiser, or Seinfeld. Suddenly, audiences could watch stars like James Gandolfini play crime mafia bosses without canned laughter!
Since this was 1999, many homes weren’t set up to watch cable shows like The Sopranos. As word spread about the quality and storytelling, people started to wonder what it was they were missing…
It Wasn’t Supposed To Be On Television
It might be one of the most successful and popular shows of all time, but The Sopranos was never supposed to be on television! Originally, David Chase developed the story as a movie. Once learning about the character of Tony Soprano and his extended family, HBO executives wanted it as a series.
Chase had to be convinced that he had the material for a great TV series. Amazingly, he had doubts it would be a success.
No One Saw It Coming
After season one came to its end, most of the actors packed up and left without expecting a return for a new season! Gandolfini and Edie Falco admitted to being surprised when HBO renewed the show and they had to return to work!
Even writer and producer Matt Weiner had to convince Chase that it was ‘already’ successful and that fans immediately fell in love with the show. Overnight, people were obsessing over Tony and his crime family.
Someone Was Supposed To Die…
When The Sopranos was originally a film, Chase had planned for Tony to kill his mother, Livia. However, as the show went on, he realized that it provided some special tension between the characters.
It was a major part of the first season and Chase eventually abandoned his idea to keep the characters at conflict with one another. However, fate would take a different turn and plans would have to change again for the second season…
Sadly, actress Nancy Marchand was diagnosed with cancer during her time on the show. Despite her sickness, she was determined to continue working and carried on right until the end. In June 2000, she sadly passed away.
This means that her final scenes in the show were put together using old footage. Showrunners even went as far as to CGI her face onto a body double – which was groundbreaking at the time. Critics did not like it when they saw it on the screen!
The Generosity of Gandolfini
After four successful seasons of The Sopranos, production came to stop due to disputes between HBO and the crew about salary. Apparently, the cast and crew even staged a sit-in and shut down production for a few days.
During the period of uncertainty. James Gandolfini personally funded some of the crewmembers who were suffering the most from the dispute. It is understood he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help out. Eventually, it was resolved and production continued.
Real Mobsters Loved It, Too
Sure, HBO wanted to show a realistic and gritty look at an unknown world, but no one knew just how realistic it was! According to FBI agents, they would often wiretap real-life mobsters and overhear them talking about the show!
Amazingly, the agents heard them discuss how realistic the show was. In fact, they were so freaked out by it that they thought they had a mole talking to Hollywood! Turns out Chase just knew what he was doing…
It Made Stars Of Its Creators
The Sopranos was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the talent of the cast and crew. After it came to its end in 2007, many of the producers and writers went on to create more groundbreaking television.
Matt Weiner’s next project was a little show called Mad Men – also one of the greatest shows of all time. Another producer, Terrance Winter, was the head writer and creator of Boardwalk Empire. Both shows earned many Emmys and awards.
The Co-Creator Directed Two Massive Episodes
When something pivotal happens in a TV show, you want the creator to take control. Well, David Chase directed two of the most important episodes of the entire show: the pilot and the finale.
By directing the pilot, Chase set the style and tone for the entire show. He focused on show-running and writing for most of the duration and only returned to the directing chair for that famous last episode. But more on that later…
When you make a show about mobsters and gangsters, it makes sense that some of the same actors will appear from other kinds of projects. Coincidentally, Chase had arranged somewhat of a ‘Scorsese Reunion’ when making The Sopranos.
It turns out that six of the regular castmembers had had previous mob-like experience in the past! Joseph R. Gannascoli, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Frank Vincent, Vincent Pastore, and Michael Imperioli all had roles in Goodfellas. It must have been fun to get the band back together!
Let’s Add One More?
Another Goodfellas alum, Ray Liotta, was offered a part in The Sopranos but it never came to light. He never said what role he was offered but only that he had turned it down so he could focus on broadening his acting range.
Reflecting on the show, Liotta realized that it revolved around Tony Soprano. This meant he didn’t think he had a chance to truly ‘shine’ in his own role. Do you think he made the right decision?
James Gandolfini Was The Second Choice
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Gandolfini play the iconic role of Tony Soprano. However, before filming began Chase had admitted he wanted to cast Steven Van Zandt in the role. Chase felt that he had ‘this similarity to Al Pacino in The Godfather’. Well, the producers didn’t agree and the plans were shelved!
Van Zandt would eventually get his chance to appear on the HBO show as Silvio Dante. Apparently, the character was created for him and he didn’t even need to audition for the part.
When Steven Schirripa got his first script for The Sopranos, he saw a lot of fat jokes directed at his character, Bobby. For a while, he was confused since he was barely larger than James Gandolfini.
Well, little did he know that the producers had plans for his character! For the first few seasons, they put him in a fat suit and make his weight more prominent. Suspicions arose in later seasons when they said it was no longer necessary…
One Actor Fought Not To Die
When you play a mobster on a show like The Sopranos, you never know when your character might meet his end. Even though the showrunners had a charming tradition of taking a newly-fired actor to dinner in Little Italy, one actor wasn’t so agreeable.
Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Molisanti, first mentioned this ritual in an interview with Rolling Stone. However, he also shared with readers that Tony Sirico wasn’t so welcoming of the idea. “If I die, you die”, he once said to producer Terence Winter.
The Show Literally Saved A Life
It can be stressful appearing on TV each week for millions of obsessed fans. All you need to do is look at Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the actress who portrayed Meadow Soprano. During the earlier parts of the show, Sigler was sadly battling with bulimia.
After producers noticed her getting thinner and thinner, they held an intervention and made sure she was healthy enough to put on weight and continue the show. The cast and crew became like a real-life family!
An Instant Obsession
As we’ve mentioned, America quickly fell in love with The Sopranos. It was immediately critically acclaimed and became the new watercooler conversation in offices around the country. Over time, the characters became parodied in Mad Magazine and SNL – the pinnacle of success.
Suddenly, Gandolfini, Falco, and Tony Sirico became international superstars. Everywhere they went they were recognized and praised. Aside from the show, there was also a video game about the characters! It was all anyone could talk about.
One of the most controversial endings in television history, The Sopranos ended suddenly by cutting to black. To this day, no one knows if Tony and his family were arrested, killed, or simply left alone to eat in a restaurant.
Even though no official explanation has been given, there’s one actor who seems to know the end. Michael Imperioli explained to Vanity Fair: “David was trying to put us in the place of the last things you see before you die. You remember some little details and something catches your eye and that’s it.”
There Were Always Multiple Endings
As soon as it aired, The Sopranos was one of the most talked-about shows on television. So, when it came to spoilers and plot points, it was important that nothing was ruined. The crew took it so seriously that they even tricked the cast.
David Chase would often have cast and crew members film multiple scenes for season finales so no one knew what to expect. A classic example of this is the end of season five, when Sil whacks Adriana.
Awards And Accolades
During its six seasons, The Sopranos earned a massive 111 Emmy nominations! Every year, the show would dominate the nominations and earn recognition for its cast, crew, writing, and general quality.
Even though it racked up hundreds of nominations, the show would only win 16 over its six years. In 2004, it was the first cable television series to win the award for Outstanding Drama Series. We bet the other shows were happy once it finally came to an end!
The Mind Behind The Doctor
One major part of the show is Tony’s relationship with his psychologist, Dr. Melfi. It was an interesting way to get inside the mind of a mafia boss and see him talk through his problems in a compelling way. It turns out that Dr. Melfi was based on David Chase’s real-life therapist.
Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, he said: “My last therapist, Lorraine Kaufman in L.A., is the model for Dr. Melfi. She had the same way of cutting through your problems.”
Drea De Matteo Almost Lost Out
We all remember Drea De Matteo portray the unforgettable Adriana La Cerva. However, she almost wasn’t cast at all! According to sources, David Chase originally thought that the actress wasn’t Italian enough for the show.
Well, it inspired De Matteo to work harder and give the audition of a lifetime! Eventually, she won hearts and minds and was cast in the show. And the rest is history! What did you think of her performance?
Life Imitates Art
We all know The Sopranos is about a crime family, but we all agree that it’s a work of fiction! Well, sadly for one actor, the boundaries between fiction and reality started to merge in uncomfortable ways.
A.J would often dabble in the criminal underworld, and so did actor Robert Iler. The young actor was arrested and charged for armed robbery and possession of marijuana. Thankfully, he was only put on probation and could continue his work on the show.
That Famous Theme Song
Everyone knows the iconic tune that plays at the start of each episode of The Sopranos. A remixed version of Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3 plays as the car drives down the street and the credits appear.
Apparently, Chase was against the song at the start. He was pushing for another melody but producers managed to convince him otherwise. Now, it is one of the most iconic opening sequences of all time! It was from their debut album, Exile on Coldharbour Lane.
Hiring Real Criminals
We’ve already seen how some of the cast members have gotten in trouble with the law. However, there’s a silly accident and then there’s Tony Sirico. Sirico was, by any objective measure, a fully blown criminal in real life!
Before playing Paulie Gualtieri, he collected more than 28 arrests – which is technically more than the number of acting jobs he had at the time! Apparently, Chase was also inspired by Sirico and his neat-freak tendencies. It was a character trait inserted into the show.
Tune In For A Movie
That’s right! There are official plans to bring The Sopranos to the big screen. In March 2018, it was confirmed that New Line Cinema would be focusing on a movie about the crime family and their backstory.
In fact, James Gandolfini’s real-life son has been cast to play a young version of Tony Soprano. The film will explore the conflicts between the Italians and African-Americans of Newark, New Jersey. Are you looking forward to a big-screen adaptation?
It is unclear just how much money Tony Soprano has over the course of the show. However, Chase worked with a technical consultant, and former NY assistant district attorney Dan Castleman, to help them understand the logistics.
To fully understand how the mob runs and operates, Chase spent some time with Castleman. Together, they discovered that Tony would probably be worth around $5-6 million. However, it is unclear how much money he has because of his gambling habits.
Special Scenes Filmed At Special Locations
Most of The Sopranos was shot on location at Silvercup Studios in New York, as well as some places in New Jersey. However, there was one location in particular that they filmed in a real-life place.
It turns out that The Bada Bing wasn’t a studio or set – they visited a real strip club! The cast and crew would often visit Satin Dolls, a Gentleman’s Club, to film some of those strip club scenes. It is located on State Route 17 in Lodi, New Jersey.
It’s No Opera
Before the show aired, producers at HBO were concerned that audiences would think the show was about a group of opera singers! Obviously, this is because of the name ‘soprano’ and how it could get confused with the singing pitch.
So, in order to make sure people knew what they were watching, they literally put a gun in the logo of the show. That way, people knew they were watching something a little more violent. How many guns have you seen in the opera house?
Dropping the ‘F’ Bomb. A Lot.
HBO is known to produce high-quality television that often pushes the boundaries of what is expected. Today, it is pretty common to hear swear words on TV – but what about 1999? Well, it was a little different then.
Audiences weren’t used to the amount of swearing involved in the show. In just the second season, the ‘F’ word is spoken 715 times! A plurality of these are said by Tony, who says it 264 times. However, Sil, Paulie, and Christopher are also guilty.
No Room For Improv
With a show like The Sopranos, it is important to get a sense of the world that David Chase is building through detailed scripts and character. He cared so much about the universe he was creating that there was one peculiar rule on set: no improv.
Every word spoken in the show was taken verbatim from the script and no added words or phrases were added during filming. If an actor didn’t like his/her lines they had to raise it with Chase ahead of time.
You don’t get a masterpiece like this without a few strict people pulling the strings from above. Well, David Chase is admittedly controlling – especially with the writing! Sometimes, the cast would even try to say something about their character development.
Sources familiar with the development process recall how sometimes the actors would speak to Chase about their character’s motivations. When they suggested their character would do something different, Chase would respond, ‘Who told you it is your character?’
In one scene in season four, Christopher tells Tony that he thinks Tony will die at the age of 50 due to his weight. At the time, it was no more than just a throwaway line without much meaning. But if we fast forward a few years…
Sadly, James Gandolfini died at the age of 51 from a heart attack in Rome, Italy. Weirdly, it’s a strange form of foreshadowing that came true only a few years after the show ended.
Not All Good News
While people around the country, and indeed the world, fell in love with the Soprano family and business, there was one group that didn’t fall quite so hard: The Coalition of Italian-American Associations.
The organization was pretty annoyed at what they thought was a negative portrayal of Italian-American members of the community. They released a statement condemning the show and calling for a boycott. That sounds like pretty gangster behavior to us! Do you think the family is a negative stereotype?
Tony Was Originally Softer
We know Tony Soprano today as the tough guy crime boss and family man. However, the original plan was to have him a little less violent and not as tough as we eventually saw. Even though Chase didn’t see him as ruthless, it was Gandolfini that convinced the team to take him to a darker place.
“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, he picked Michael Imperioli up by the neck, by the collar,” said Chase in an interview with Written Magazine.
Changing The Opening Sequence
We know that the iconic theme tune by Alabama 3 remained a popular song for the duration of the series. Well, there was one element of the opening sequence that was changed over the years.
In the opening shots for the first three seasons, the World Trade Center could be seen in the rear-view mirror of Tony’s car. After 9/11, the showrunners removed it from the sequence out of respect for the New Yorkers and New Jerseyans who lost their lives.
Even today, The Sopranos is felt around the world. It was the show that put HBO on the map as one of the most ‘adult’ programmers out there and others were taking note on how to replicate its magic.
In the next few years, television stations started green-lighting more shows that focussed on long-form, character-driven dramas. These included ABC’s Lost, for example. The island adventure show also placed an emphasis on cliffhangers and character development.