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.
8. 437 f**ks in season one. The F-word gets tossed around a lot throughout the show and found its way into season one on 437 occasions. Tony racks up 134 hits, Sil (20), Paulie (25), Christopher (61), Carmela (5), Others (192). It would jump up to 715 uses by season two.
9. Actor Joseph R. Gannascoli was originally only going to have a small cameo in season one. Gannascoli was originally cast in the role of a customer named Gino in the scene revolving around Christopher’s frustration with the bakery boy from season one. Chase decided to recast Gannascoli as Vito Spatafore for season two, with Spatafore continuing on until his motel room run-in with Phil Leotardo in season six.
10. Adriana La Cerva was originally just “Hostess.” In the show’s pilot episode, actress Drea de Matteo makes only a brief appearance as an unnamed hostess. In the second episode her character is then bumped up to Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana La Cerva.
11. Much of the writing staff had previously worked on Northern Exposure. The worlds of Northern New Jersey and the fictional Cicely, Alaska are about as contrasting as possible, but before moving in with the mob, several of The Sopranos core staff worked on the quirky dramedy Northern Exposure. Writers Robin Green, Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider, and Mitchell Burgess all worked with David Chase while he was the showrunner during Northern Exposure’s last three seasons.
12. The Sopranos was initially meant to be a movie. David Chase had originally intended the idea for the story of a mobster in therapy to deal with his mother issues as a feature film. It wasn’t until after discussing the project with his manager that Chase developed it into a television series, and began writing the script after signing a development deal in 1995.
13. It almost became a movie though again in 1997. After shooting the pilot for HBO in 1997, the network put it on the shelf for several months. Understandably frustrated, Chase proposed the idea with HBO of shooting an extra 45 minutes of footage and releasing it as a film. Finally, in December of that year, HBO ordered an additional 12 episodes for a full 13-episode season that would air in January 1999.
14. The show almost had a different intro song for each episode. As iconic as the show’s opening theme song “Woke Up This Morning” by UK band Alabama 3 is, Chase initially wanted a different song for every episode’s opening sequence. HBO executives didn’t like the idea and convinced Chase that viewer’s need one song to associate with the show. Though Chase did exercise control over using a different song each time for the show’s closing credits.
15. The Twin Towers were removed from the show’s opening credits. In the show’s first three seasons viewers can see the Twin Towers as Tony enters the Jersey Turnpike. Following the 9-11 attacks in 2001, the image of the World Trade Center was removed at the beginning of the fourth season.