March 14, 2007
"The Sopranos" The Final Chapter
Tensions are mounting between the New York and New Jersey mob families.
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Will Big "T" survive the predictable blood bath when HBO rolls out the final eight episodes of "The Sopranos," starting April 8 at 9 p.m?
Nobody's talking, but if creator/executive producer David Chase had his way Tony Soprano might have gotten whacked eight years ago. Despite a shelf-worth of Emmys, the 61-year-old scriptwriter remains adamant: "You have to remember, I didn't want to do this. Doing a TV series was never my main career focus. For 20-something years, I always wanted to do feature films." The story line that first season was actually a two-hour feature story stretched over 12 episodes.
Even after getting the green light from HBO, Chase secretly hoped cable network executives would take one look at the pilot and discreetly pay him a half million to rescind the contract. That way he'd have the money to bankroll his big screen adaptation. It didn't happen. Instead, "The Sopranos" became an international phenomenon airing in Ireland, England, Spain, and Italy.
A drastic departure from the annals of Mafia mythology, the storyline was anchored by weekly therapy sessions between Tony (James Gandolfini) and his psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Juggling domestic and professional responsibilities of two families, Soprano faces the same concerns as any high-powered corporate leader — keeping the family safe and the business profitable. In Tony's case, however, there were additional liabilities like a cantankerous mother, rebellious children, and deadly associates.
Failure was never an option.
"I learned a lot about the characters during the filming of the pilot, like a vulnerability that I didn't originally have in mind," stated the soft-spoken man, who majored in "English Lit and the Rolling Stones" at Stanford University.
Another element that distinguishes the series from contemporary sagas like The Godfather and Goodfellas is the ingrained humor. Usually it's subtle, like the premiere episode back in January 1999, in which a bathrobe-clad Tony played nursemaid to a brood of ducks in the swimming pool of his palatial Essex County, New Jersey home. Occasionally, it's side-splittingly funny, like the sight of nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) rummaging through the snow-covered Pine Barrens after the escaped Russian in third season.
Although Chase diplomatically sidesteps the whereabouts of the Russian, he's quick to dash any hopes regarding Adriana, Christopher's fiancée. "Honest to God, she's dead. It had to be and it was a big ratings boom, because Drea de Matteo added something to the show. But Adriana is lying in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania covered with garbage," he explained while filming one of the final scenes in Manhattan.
Also ruled out was the possibility of Tony bedding Dr. Melfi. "I know, many fans wanted it to happen, but we've tried to depict the storyline as accurately as we can," said the former writer/producer of "The Rockford Files," who also lists "Almost Grown," "I'll Fly Away," and "Northern Exposure" on his resume.
Chase added, "Our female audience is important and sizable. 'The Sopranos' is about a family — a wife and kids. It's not 'Eight is Enough,' but it blends all the elements together, bringing women more center stage."
As an only child growing up in an Italian-American family in Clifton, N.J., Chase remembers the self-styled "social clubs" that dotted the neighborhood, but he's quick to point out, "No one really knows about that life. I heard that one of my cousin's husbands was connected, but no one ever talked about it."
"William Wellman's The Public Enemy was the first gangster movie I ever saw. It was on a TV show called 'Million Dollar Movie.' I was probably eight or nine. Those last 15-20 minutes were very frightening. It shocked me, but I think that's the moment I decided I wanted to make movies," noted Chase, who was recently honored by the Director's Guild of America.
In recent episodes, the acting roster has embraced names like Julianna Margulies, Frankie Valli, Ben Kingsley, and Ron Leibman. Chase has an astute knack for matching personalities with their characters.
Chase cites Tony Sirico, who portrays Paulie Walnuts, as an example, "They are very much alike. Tony's germphobic, and has a very close relationship with his mother. When we started out, Tony only had two lines in the pilot."
Like a real-life godfather, Chase also feels an obligation to nurture and encourage "his family." Two weeks after hearing Dominick Calanesse sing at a party hosted by Bracco, Chase gave Corrado "Junior" Soprano the opportunity to display his vocal talents on the show. The 75-year-old actor followed up with a CD titled "Ungrateful Heart." Reversing the order, Imperiolo, who has written several of "The Sopranos'" scripts, will see his alter ego's horror script get off the ground.
The small screen future might not be as promising for Tony. Not with Tony's nemesis Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) back in the mix after surviving a heart attack.
Although Chase acknowledges that pulling off the finale of a television series is "notoriously difficult," he has no regrets about ending the show. "Being with HBO gave me a lot of freedom. It was never like working for a network," he concluded.