25 Facts About The Sopranos

HBO
HBO

The Sopranos made household names of James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and the rest of New Jersey's fictional Satriale's-eating, Bing-frequenting tough guys. On January 10, 1999—20 years ago today—the series premiered, and helped usher in the concept of "prestige television." Even in today's Golden Age of Television, The Sopranos is still heralded as one of the best TV shows ever made. But not even six seasons and 86 episodes on the air—plus another 12 years of critical comparisons and acclaim—could unveil all of the show's secrets.

(Tip: If you're still pining for more behind-the-scenes facts after reading the 25 below, The Sopranos Sessions—a new book by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall—is a great place to continue your education.)

1. The Sopranos started as a movie pitch.

Before The Sopranos creator David Chase developed the story of Tony Soprano and his family for television, he pitched it as a movie about a mobster who enters therapy to discuss problems he has with his mother. According to Chase, his manager Lloyd Braun made him consider TV for the first time by telling him, "I want you to know that we believe that you have inside you a great television series."

2. Livia Soprano was supposed to die in the first season.

Nancy Marchand in The Sopranos
HBO

While Chase abandoned his movie idea, the tension between Tony and his mother, Livia, provided the central conflict for the show's first season—and that's where it was supposed to end. Chase originally intended for Tony to succeed in suffocating his mother with a pillow after she tries to have him killed in season 1. However, Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, was sick with cancer during her time on the show. She asked Chase, "David, just keep me working." He graciously obliged.

3. Nancy Marchand died before filming what would have been her final scenes.

Just as she wished, Chase kept Marchand working until the very end. She passed away from lung cancer and emphysema on June 18, 2000, one day before her 72nd birthday. Livia's final moments on screen were cobbled together from old footage, recordings of her usual choruses, and special effects (Marchand's head was CGI'ed onto a body double). At the time, critics panned the scene, deeming it awkward and convoluted.

4. The show's creative team boasts some powerful alumni.

Sopranos writers and producers included Matthew Weiner, who went on to create Mad Men, Terence Winter, the mastermind behind Boardwalk Empire, and Ilene Landress, who executive produced Girls.

5. DAVID CHASE ONLY DIRECTED TWO EPISODES ...


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...the pilot and the finale. Tim Van Patten, who has directing credits on Game of Thrones, The Wireand Boardwalk Empire, directed the most (20). Allen Coulter directed 12 episodes, including two of the series' best: "College" and "The Test Dream." Steve Buscemi directed four episodes, including the incredible "Pine Barrens." Only one episode was directed by a woman: Lorraine Senna took the helm of season 1 episode "Down Neck."

6. The Sopranos shares 28 cast members with Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

According to IMDb, six regular Sopranos cast members appeared in Goodfellas (Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, Frank Vincent, and Joseph R. Gannascoli). Ten recurring Sopranos characters and 11 one-time guest stars also appeared in the 1990 Martin Scorsese masterpiece.

7. Ray Liotta was approached about a role.


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In a 2001 Today Show interview, Liotta said he was offered a part in The Sopranos—without saying which one—but turned it down to focus on his film career. In 2003, Liotta corroborated his story for the university newspaper the GW Hatchet. "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," he said. "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."

8. Steven Van Zandt was David Chase's first pick for Tony.

Before he auditioned James Gandolfini, Chase wanted Steven Van Zandt, guitar player of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, to play Tony. "I used to listen to music a lot on headphones and look at [Springsteen's] LP, and Steven Van Zandt's face always grabbed me," Chase told Vanity Fair in 2012. "He had this similarity to Al Pacino in The Godfather. Then we were casting the pilot, and my wife, Denise, and I were watching TV. 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. I said to my wife, 'That guy has got to be in the show!'"

The producers didn't want to gamble on a first-time actor for the show's lead, so Chase offered to write a part for Van Zandt. The character Silvio Dante, who Van Zandt came to play, was in fact inspired by a short story about a retired hitman written by Van Zandt himself.

9. Tony wasn't originally supposed to be such a tough guy.


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Chase didn't view Tony as such a ruthless character; this came straight from James Gandolfini. In a 2007 conversation with Tom Fontana (creator of Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street, and St. Elsewhere) for Written By magazine, Chase said, "Jim showed me early on how much of a prick that guy would have to be. 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 motherf***er. That guy is surviving the mob. He's really a dangerous person. He's not a fun guy."

10. Lorraine Bracco was originally asked to play Carmela.

After portraying a similar role in Goodfellas, the Sopranos producers originally envisioned Lorraine Bracco as Tony's wife, Carmela Soprano. It was Bracco who asked to play Tony's therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, which she thought would be more of a challenge. Bracco later said of playing Melfi, "I was not ready for how f***ing difficult Dr. Melfi was to play. I am an explosive girl. I am loud. I am full of life and full of all kinds of bull****, and I have to sit on every emotion, every word, everything, to play this character." Bracco went on to garner four Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations for her performance.

The wonderful Edie Falco, of course, was cast as Carmela.

11. Dr. Melfi was modeled on Chase's real-life therapist.


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In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Chase revealed that Lorraine Kaufman, his therapist during the time he conceptualized The Sopranos, provided the inspiration for Dr. Melfi. "She had the same way of cutting through your bull****," he said. Not only did Chase tell Dr. Kaufman of her influence, Kaufman became involved in the characters' psychological development. "After three or four seasons, she wrote me a breakdown of the Soprano family," Chase said. "This is not a bible, but every once in a while we get it out. 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."

12. Michael Imperioli thought he blew his audition.

It's almost impossible to imagine The Sopranos without Michael Imperioli as Tony's nephew/cousin Christopher Moltisanti, but as Imperioli tells it, he almost didn't land the gig. "They brought me in, and I met with David. I thought he hated my audition, because David's a poker-faced guy," Imperioli told Vanity Fair in 2012. "He kept giving me notes and giving me direction, and I walked out of there, and I was like, 'I blew that one.'"

13. Drea de Matteo played an unnamed hostess in the pilot.

Chris-ta-fuh's better half almost didn't make the cut, either. Drea de Matteo was brought in to read for the role of Adriana La Cerva during the initial round of casting, but, according to de Matteo, Chase "didn't think she was Italian enough." So, in the pilot, de Matteo appears in one scene as an unnamed hostess. It wasn't until after the series was picked up that de Matteo became the Adriana we all know and love.

14. Much of Paulie's storyline came straight from Tony Sirico's life.

Before Tony Sirico was Paulie "Walnuts" Gaultieri, he was a criminal. Seriously. According to the Los Angeles Times, his rap sheet was longer than his acting credits: 28 arrests to 27 acting jobs. And as both Sirico and Chase tell it, the similarities between Sirico and his character didn't end there. Paulie's neat-freak tendencies and unusual living arrangements were transferred directly from Sirico's real life to the screen. "I lived with Ma for 16 years before she passed. David knew that going in. That became one of my story lines," he told Vanity Fair.

15. Tony is estimated to be worth about $5 to $6 million.


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David Chase and The Sopranos producers worked with a technical consultant, former New York assistant district attorney Dan Castleman, to fully understand the way the real mob made their money. According to Castleman, Tony Soprano's estimated net worth was $5 to $6 million—but this number often fluctuated due to Tony's gambling habits.

16. Steven Schirripa wore a fat suit to play Bobby Baccalieri.


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When Steven Schirripa got his first script and saw all the fat jokes Tony directed at Bobby, he thought he had been miscast—he was barely larger than Gandolfini. But a couple days before filming began, he was fitted for his fat suit, which he wore for the first few seasons. "And then I guess, in season 4, David thought I was fat enough on my own, so he let me get rid of it," Schirripa told Vanity Fair.

17. The Bada-Bing scenes were filmed at a real New Jersey strip club.

The Sopranos was filmed on location in New Jersey and New York and on sound stages at Silvercup Studios in Queens. The Bing, however, was no studio creation. Those scenes were shot at Satin Dolls, a "gentleman's club" on State Route 17 in Lodi, New Jersey.

18. Exterior shots of the Sopranos' home were shot at a private residence in North Caldwell, New Jersey.

The Soprano family resides at (the fictional) 633 Stag Trail Road in (the real) North Caldwell, New Jersey.

19. The Sopranos was so realistic, the real mob thought there was a connected guy on the inside.

FBI agents told The Sopranos's creative team that on Monday mornings all anyone could talk about was The Sopranos. And on the wire taps they'd collected from the weekend, that's all the real-life mobsters could talk about as well. Terence Winter told Vanity Fair, "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."

20. To settle disputes over actor salaries, James Gandolfini gave each actor $33,333 of his own money.

James Gandolfini
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After season 4, production on The Sopranos was delayed due to a pay dispute with HBO. According to Edie Falco, the cast staged a sort of "Occupy Vesuvio" sit-in that shut down the set. To help quell tensions, Gandolfini split his bonus among all the regular cast members, giving them each $33,333.

21. Chase shot multiple versions of many scenes so that not even the actors would know how things turned out.

Were you shocked to see Sil whack Adriana in season 5? So was Drea de Matteo. De Matteo told Vanity Fair that David Chase had the cast and crew film two different versions of the dramatic episode: one in which Adriana suspects something fishy and drives away after her final phone call with Tony, and one where—well, you know what happens.

According to de Matteo, this practice of filming multiple versions of the same scene to keep the cast and crew guessing (along with interviewers and fans) was a common occurrence.

22. the show's theme song is "Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3.

Originally, Chase wanted to use a different song during the opening credits of each episode, but the other producers convinced him otherwise. For the theme, Chase chose a remixed version of "Woke Up This Morning" from Exile on Coldharbour Lane, the 1997 debut album by English band Alabama 3. Oblivious to the fact that his song would one day become synonymous with Jersey mobsters, Alabama 3 frontman Rob Spragg wrote the song after hearing about the 1996 murder trial of Sara Thornton, who stabbed her alcoholic husband to death after suffering years of domestic abuse at his hands.

23. During the first three seasons, the World Trade Center can be seen in Tony's rearview mirror during the opening credits.

As Tony exits the Lincoln Tunnel on his drive from New York to his Jersey 'burb, the Twin Towers can be seen in his rearview mirror (in a bit of Hollywood magic, since the World Trade Center wasn't actually visible from the Lincoln Tunnel's exit). This shot was removed beginning with the first episode following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

24. It was the first cable television show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.

In 2004, after being nominated for the award five times, The Sopranos won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. It would continue to be nominated every year it was eligible, winning again for its final season in 2007. Matthew Weiner, who shared the Emmy with David Chase and the other executive producers, would go on to win the award the next four years for Mad Men, until Homeland broke his winning streak in 2012.

25. Michael Imperioli is convinced Tony Soprano dies in the finale.


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The famous cut-to-black—and impeccably truncated version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"—in The Sopranos finale is heralded as one of the most shocking (and controversial) cliffhangers of all time. Does Tony get shot? Does he get arrested? Or does the whole family finish their sundaes and go home?

No one but David Chase can say for sure. But Michael Imperioli (Christopher) is firmly in the "Ohmigod, they killed Tony!" camp. "I think he's dead, is what I think," Imperioli told Vanity Fair in 2012. "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. You don't know the aftermath because you're gone." And with that, the show was gone, too.

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
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"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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