It’s been exactly 25 years since The Sopranos debuted on HBO on January 10, 1999. The series, a subversive drama about a mob boss in psychoanalysis, went on to radically transform how television was perceived. Its star, James Gandolfini, won accolades for his portrayal of Tony Soprano. And while it may be hard to imagine anyone but Gandolfini in the role, producers weren’t so sure.
Series creator David Chase initially approached Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia for the role. LaPaglia had played his share of cops as well as criminals in movies like 1994’s The Client. Ultimately, he and Chase disagreed on how best to approach Tony.
“I had a different idea for the character than he had, as I saw him a bit more urbane than the average ‘Hey, how ‘ya doin’ bag of donuts kind of guy,” LaPaglia said in 2007. “At the same time I was offered a role in the Broadway production of A View From the Bridge and I chose to do the play.”
At least three other actors who auditioned for Tony wound up appearing on the series. John Ventimiglia, who played restaurant owner Artie Bucco; and Michael Rispoli, who played Jackie Aprile.
The third? In pursuing his unconventional show, Chase also considered making an unconventional pick for Tony: Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who had virtually zero acting credits to his name save for a small role where he was billed as “cyclist” in 1985’s bike drama American Flyers. Chase told Vanity Fair in 2012 that Van Zandt’s face “had always grabbed me” and that he reminded him of Al Pacino.
“David wanted me for Tony, and we have the formality of going out and auditioning for HBO,” Van Zandt said. “It was a very funny moment. In the waiting room—I swear to God this is true—I’m going out to audition, and I see Jimmy Gandolfini sitting there. Now, I don’t know if he was there because HBO had decided they were not going to cast me because I’d never acted before—which is what they ended up telling David—or whether Jimmy was there for another part. I never asked him.”
Van Zandt (obviously) didn’t get the role, but Chase still wanted him for the series: He wound up playing Silvio Dante, one of Tony’s top men.
Gandolfini’s audition didn’t go well. He reportedly walked out of it after growing frustrated over his performance, which he dubbed “sh-t.” He and Chase eventually connected, and Gandolfini remained on the show right through its divisive 2007 series finale.