Time and time again, the word “intuitive” has regularly been used to describe James Gandolfini as both an actor and as a human being. Few people know this better than Animal House actor Peter Riegert, who played the recurring character of Assemblyman Ronald Zellman on several episodes of The Sopranos during seasons 3 and 4.
For Riegert’s final appearance in “Watching Too Much Television,” the seventh episode of season 4, Zellman—a politician and sometimes-colleague of Tony’s—tells the mob boss that he has been dating Tony’s ex, Irina (Oksana Lada), and that he’s in love with her. While Tony initially takes the news well and wishes Zellman well, he has a change of heart at the end of the episode. While driving home, The Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl” comes on the radio, and Tony’s thoughts turn back to Irina. Moments later, Tony is knocking on Zellman’s door ready to exact violent vengeance against him.
You can see how the scene plays out above, but that’s not how it was initially supposed to go. And according to Insider, it was Gandolfini’s singular intuitiveness that changed the scene and its dynamics. In Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos, a new book by The Sopranos co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, Riegert tells the story of how Gandolfini sensed his discomfort with the scene as it was originally written, and took charge to make sure the actor was ok with how it was filmed.
“I show up at the [table] read and find out what I was going to be doing,” Riegert explains in Woke Up This Morning. “The scene was Tony beating the living sh*t out of me with a belt, but in the scene description, it’s written that he pulls my underwear off” then beat his backside with a belt, all of which made Riegert “unhappy,” especially as the veteran actor was never told that he’d need to appear nude.
“I was going to be naked,” Riegert said. “As far as I’m concerned, I would have liked a heads-up on that.” As Libby Torres writes for Insider:
He recalled that after the table read, Gandolfini came over to check on him. When the award-winning actor learned that Riegert was unhappy with being nude in the scene, he immediately called Chase over to discuss the situation, and according to Riegert, the “Sopranos” creator reluctantly agreed to let Riegert remain semi-clothed.
“I didn’t know whether I was going to get fired or not, but Jimmy [Gandolfini] said to me, ‘Whatever you decide to do, I promise you I will have your back,'” Riegert remembered.
Per Riegert, he ultimately decided to keep his underwear on for the scene. After testing out the prop belt (made of Styrofoam) that Gandolfini was going to use on him, however, he told the late actor that he could “whale away” on him during the beating—thereby humiliating Zellman in a different way.
It’s a powerful scene, made all the more impactful by the way it’s shot—part of it from the ground, looking up at a hulking Tony standing over the camera, belt in hand. But for Riegert, the most memorable part was how Gandolfini had sensed his discomfort, and taken immediate steps to alleviate that.
“At that table read, I didn’t realize that Jim recognized, on my face, that there was an actor in trouble,” Riegert said. “And he made it so it was my choice.”