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Byline: Peter Biskind
To paraphrase the timeless words of Edward G. Robinson's Rico in Little Caesar, "Is this the end of Tony?" Well, that wouldn't be for me to say, and in any case, I don't know, what with plot points guarded as fiercely as the crown jewels. What does appear to be certain, however, is that the upcoming nine episodes, technically the second half of the show's sixth season, will finally spell the end of The Sopranos, 10 years after HBO bought the script for the pilot. This is a fact of life, the 800-pound gorilla that nobody on the show, the interiors of which are shot at Silvercup Studios, a former bread bakery in Long Island City, wants to acknowledge. Though it feels like just another day on the set as cast and crew work on a domestic scene in Janice Soprano's kitchen, the actors might as well be wearing sandwich boards reading, the end is nigh.
For most of them, it's been an unprecedented, nearly decade-long marriage to the show, which has meant a ready-made, close-knit surrogate family of artistic collaborators, not to mention a steady paycheck. And most of them aren't quite ready to hit the pavement. Says Tony Sirico, who plays Soprano capo Paulie Walnuts, "For the last three months now we've been doing a lot of reminiscing. We bring up the show ending, and then we stop right away, because we want to make believe that it's not happening. I want to block it out of my head. I'm heartbroken." According to Edie Falco, who plays Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, "There are actors here who will never get an opportunity like this again. Having gotten scripts while we've been working on this, there's just nothing out there that's interesting. It scares the hell out of me." Little Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and maestro of his own radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage, had never acted before he landed the part of Tony's consigliere, Silvio Dante. Sighing, he says, "There's a fair chance I'll never act again."
The one exception to the pervasive melancholy is James Gandolfini himself, the actor who turned Tony Soprano into the Homer Simpson of live-action television, transformed the Jersey Mob boss into one of the great screen characters by investing him with an unprecedented physicality-his bulk, his 12 o'clock shadow, his labored breathing, even, which makes him sound just short of tubercular. No one will ever forget Tony's graceless shuffle down his driveway every morning to pick up the Newark Star-Ledger, or the slovenly way he bellies up to the kitchen counter to guzzle O.J. out of the container. At the same time, alongside Tony's signature menace, the actor gives him a winning sweetness, and is able to effortlessly slide from one to the other and back again, so that these traits don't seem like contradictions, but rather the fluid flow of personality. Gandolfini has started his own production company and has a deal to develop material for HBO. He's had enough of Tony. "It's been a great opportunity, but I don't have much trepidation about it ending. I think it's more than time. Part of the fun of acting is the research, finding out about other people. As much as I've explored this guy, I don't know what else to really do with him. I've been in one place for 10 years. That's enough. It's time for me to do other things."
Gandolfini might be the only person in America who feels that way. His performance helped transform HBO from a fights-and-features TV footnote into the Rolls-Royce of pay cable, a critical and commercial behemoth whose impact has recast American television-almost, or at least occasionally-into a medium for adults. In our culture of hype, the currency of praise has been so de-valued that no one credits it, even when deserved. The truth is, The Sopranos, whether in one-hour shots, 13-hour seasonal chunks, or the 86-hour long-form marathon-however you want to take it-is one of the masterpieces of American popular culture, on a par with the first two Godfathers, Mean Streets, and GoodFellas-the classics of Mob cinema-or even European epics such as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento, or, as the late New York Times critic Vincent Canby first claimed, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's monumental 151/2-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, all of which The Sopranos dwarfs in terms of length, if not scope. New York's Museum of Modern Art honored The Sopranos in February 2001, when the senior film curator, Laurence Kardish, showed the first two seasons, along with a couple of films that influenced the show-including a Laurel and Hardy picture, Saps at Sea. This was the first time an American dramatic series for television had been shown at the museum. Kardish calls the show "an extraordinary blend of great psychological insight and social cartography, zany as well as poignant and resonant." No less an authority than Norman Mailer recently gave The Sopranos high praise indeed when he favorably compared the depth of its characterizations to that achieved in novels.
But, despite its length, the series has never been epic television, never a Band of Brothers or even a Rome, if "epic" is synonymous with grand historical sweep. In fact, it is something much more unique: "personal" television writ large, television drawn from the experiences and sensibility of a small crew of writers, and, in particular, the man who created it and is now shutting it down despite keening and teeth gnashing from HBO, which would undoubtedly prefer that the show go on forever. That man, one of the few authentic auteurs television has produced, is David Chase.
Chase, 61, is about six feet tall, slender, with thinning hair and a saturnine expression that matches a dark, savage sense of humor. He's Italian (the family name was DeCesare), but he's not given to the emotional flamboyance that we associate with Italians-and which is very much on display in the show-perhaps because he was raised as a Protestant. He's a watchful man, plays his cards close to the vest, lives very much in his head, listens as much as he speaks, except for abrupt and frequent explosions of laughter. Though he commands an enterprise that employs upwards of 300 people, he is not a cheerleader in the conventional sense. He is prone, during writers' meetings, to say things such as "God, I'm so fucking depressed. I hate this. I can't do another one." As executive producer Ilene S. Landress puts it, "If you're looking for a glass-half-full person, he's not it. The scary part is sometimes you think you're giving him good news and he turns it into bad news." Van Zandt describes Chase as a tortured soul. "Look at the show," the actor says, smiling. "He's not moody-he's always in a bad mood. He's very consistent." There are bits and pieces of Chase in many of the show's characters, but if he resembles any of them, it's probably Johnny Sack, the boss of the New York family who conducts himself with the aplomb of a dyspeptic chess master.
We're sitting together in the back of a car on a tour of New Jersey, where Chase grew up and where his show unfolds, having headed out of New York through the Lincoln Tunnel. The signs and sights flash by as they do in the show's opening-credits sequence, and I can almost hear the music that accompanies it as Chase points out the window to an area in Newark where his mother grew up, since obliterated by development. "That was the original Little Italy," he says. "The buildings were torn down, and large projects were built. And then those were torn down, and these smaller ones were built." Most of the places he remembers aren't there anymore, victims of relentless change. You can't go home again.
New Jersey is more than just the show's backdrop. The Sopranos is about guys who make their living on the wrong side of the Hudson River in Jersey's gray flatlands, skimming city contracts, hijacking semis full of booze or cigarettes, betting on sports, or feigning nine-to-five regularity in "waste management." Its Broadway is Bloomfield Avenue, a thoroughfare that runs from downtown Newark out to the nouveau suburbs, lined, for much of its length, with strip malls, single-story working-class bars, nail parlors, and Italian restaurants with names like Roma or DaVinci's, whose walls are hung with black velvet paintings. Which is to say, Jersey is not New York, and, despite Tony's robust cash flow and the big house on the cul-de-sac in North Caldwell, The Sopranos is more GoodFellas than Godfather; it's the Mob in the era of diminished expectations, when, as Tony points out, the big money goes to Enron. Good-bye, cashmere overcoats; hello, grungy bathrobes. North Jersey is the place that colors the fears and hopes of Chase's characters; it's the place from which he fled, but which-to everyone's surprise, including his own-proved fertile ground for his powers of invention.
A severely truncated version of Chase's career goes like this: When the idea for The Sopranos finally floated to the surface, he had been laboring in the vineyards …