I know it’s a much debated subject, but The Sopranos is the greatest drama in television history. Yes, The Wire and Breaking Bad are both fantastic, but — as Brett Martin notes in Difficult Men — there just wouldn’t be a Walter White without Tony Soprano.
The show ushered in the current golden age of cable dramas and gave audiences the kind of character-driven storytelling more often associated with movies. Television dramas now aren’t just 45 minute stories, they’re epic sagas spanned out over a period of years.
It’s been six months since the passing of the show’s legendary star, James Gandolfini, and January 10th marks the 15 year anniversary of the show’s debut. With that in mind, here are 15 facts about the show’s beginnings you may not know.
1. It didn’t take long for the New Jersey mob to catch wind of the show. FBI wiretaps from 1999 revealed four members from Northern New Jeresy’s the DeCavalcantes organized crime group talking about their likeness to the Soprano family. In the recording, one member asks, “Is this supposed to be us?” His buddy replies, “You’re in there, they mentioned your name in there.”
2. Jackie Aprile Sr. could have been Tony Soprano. Actor Michael Rispoli originally auditioned for the role of Tony, but Sopranos creator David Chase thought he’d be better for the role of Jackie Aprile Sr. So he adjusted the role — which was originally a much older character — to better fit Rispoli’s age.
3. Executives at HBO were worried the show’s title would mislead audiences into thinking the show was about music. Given the show’s impact in television history and cast with names like “Gandolfini,” “Sirico,” and “Imperioli,” the confusion seems ridiculous, but in 1998 there was probably some suit asking, “So is the show about opera singers?” An easy solution to the issue was putting the gun image in the logo.
4. “A don doesn’t wear shorts.” After the airing of the pilot, actor James Gandolfini was told by a real-life wise guy to never wear shorts onscreen again. The encounter later found its way into the series during episode one, season four, when Carmine Lupertazzi criticizes Tony after hearing about the backyard party adding, “A don doesn’t wear shorts.”
James Gandolfini would continue to be occasionally contacted by mobsters offering praise for his true to life portrayal.
5. Tony Sirico only agreed to play Paulie Walnuts if he wouldn’t be portrayed as a rat. Tony had an agreement with creator David Chase that Paulie would never fall into the role of an informant. This could be because of the actor’s previous stint in prison following a robbery arrest. In James Toback’s 1989 documentary, The Big Bang, Sirico delves into his rap sheet that stacked up an impressive 28 arrests.
6. Steven Van Zandt created the character of Silvio Dante. Steven’s goofy right-hand man to Tony Soprano character was based on a character of the same name in a short story written by Van Zandt. David Chase brought Silvio Dante into The Soprano’s after being given the short story by Van Zandt.
7. Ray Liotta was almost in the cast — because Ray Liotta. Given Liotta’s many, many roles as a mobster or crooked cop, it’s not surprising that the actor was the top choice to play Tony Soprano. He turned it down however after deciding that he didn’t want to commit to a television series. His name later came up for the role of Ralph Cifaretto, but of course that went to Joe Pantoliano.