The Sopranos is one of the most iconic TV shows of all time. Not only is it the series that made HBO blow up with original programming (would we even have Game of Thrones without it?!), it has also heavily influenced TV in the years since its premiere. In January 1999, the world met Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and the landscape of televised dramas hasn't been the same since. The mobster saga delved deep into the underworld of New Jersey organized crime and Italian-American heritage. It received a fair share of backlash because of those themes, but it's undeniable how beloved The Sopranos still is!
When you have a show that has been as revered and derided as The Sopranos, you know some crazy stuff happened behind-the-scenes! There are plenty of things fans don't know about the classic show, from casting secrets to the hidden pasts of some of the actors. Let's just say that sometimes the fictional mob drama spilled over into real life! Any true The Sopranos fan will find these behind-the-scenes secrets super fascinating. Here are all the crazy things that happened when cameras weren't rolling!
When the show's creator David Chase was first pitching the idea for The Sopranos, he was actually aiming to make a movie! The concept came from an idea he has about a mobster in therapy. When he started shopping the idea around, it was Fox that convinced him to make it for TV and ordered a pilot. While it fell through at Fox, Chase continued to try and find a network home for the TV show version of his idea. Luckily, HBO ended up taking a chance on him and it went to series. But, if it hadn't aired, Chase reported he would've added an hour to the already-shot pilot and released it as a movie!
Before Van Zandt was cast as mobster Silvio Dante, he had a very different career! He was a musician, best known for being part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. He had left the band a brief time before being on The Sopranos and released five of his own albums. Though, he admits, his preoccupation with politics in his music tanked his career a bit! Chase recalled Van Zandt's face always grabbing him on the cover of Springsteen and E Street Band albums and he just knew the guy had to be in his show. Despite having no previous acting experience, Van Zandt became one of the most memorable parts of The Sopranos!
When Chase wanted to get Van Zandt on as part of The Sopranos, he actually envisioned him as playing Tony because of his perfect gangster look. The network, though, wasn't so keen on having a non-actor lead the series. Van Zandt agreed and came to the realization that he didn't want to steal a role from a more established actor, anyways. So they created a role for him! When Chase came to Van Zandt saying he would create a role specifically, it was Van Zandt who said he had written a treatment about a retired hitman named Silvio Dante. The rest is history!
Chase wanted to be as true to life as possible when casting for the show, therefore only a few cast members weren't actually Italian. This includes Jamie-Lynn Sigler who played Meadow Soprano; Robert Iler who played AJ Soprano; and David Proval who played Richie Aprile. They were able to play Italian Americans convincingly enough to still get cast on the show. But other than a few notable exceptions, everyone in the cast boasted an Italian American background, adding true authenticity to the series.
Adriana La Cerva is one of the most notable roles in the show but she almost wasn't played by Drea de Matteo! The actress auditioned for the role of Adriana but Chase turned her down, citing that she didn't look Italian enough. He did hire her to play an unnamed waitress in the pilot episode, though. When the show went to series, he reauditioned de Matteo for the part and, this time, she wasn't going to lose it. She teased her hair up, wore a necklace spelled had her name in diamonds, and pumped up her accent to nail what Chase was looking for. It worked out and she was officially Adriana!
Before she ended up playing Tony Soprano's daughter, Sigler was just another young actress auditioning for any role she could get. So, when she walked into The Sopranos audition, she just assumed it was a show about opera singers. Funnily enough, HBO didn't want to name the show that for fear audiences would think the same thing! Fans, and Sigler, very soon figured out just how far from opera singing the show really was!
Chase admitted in an interview that the idea for Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was based upon his own therapist, Lorraine Kaufman. (Bonus craziness: the actress who played Melfi had the same name as the real-life therapist!) Chase noted that Kaufman had the same way of cutting through BS that Melfi has on the show when dealing with Tony. He even said that he's discussed the show and characters in-depth with Kaufman, leading to her plotting out her own breakdown of the family and their psychological issues!
Before Lady Gaga was a superstar, she was just Stefani Germanotta. At 15 years old, the Italian-American tween guest starred on The Sopranos as one of AJ's friends from school. She appears in a scene where she, AJ, and a bunch of classmates break into the school pool to have a little fun. She looks as cool as ever in the scene — smoking and getting into trouble. If you want to catch a glimpse at one of Gaga's first forays in front of the camera look no further than season 3, episode 9 of the series!
The cast of The Sopranos was full of people very familiar with playing gangsters and criminals. The TV series and the movie Goodfellas share 27 cast members! Some were guest-stars and bit players, but many were some of the main characters on The Sopranos. This includes Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Michael Imperioli, Frank Albanese, and Vincent Pastore. Bracco definitely plays the most wildly diverging characters between the film and TV show. You won't believe how different Karen Hill and Dr. Melfi are!
...Speaking of Goodfellas cast members! One of the biggest of them all was almost on The Sopranos, too! Liotta was approached by Chase to star in the series in an undisclosed role but decided against it. He wanted to focus on his film career and not get bogged down by a TV show. He never revealed which role he was offered but we have to assume that it was on the smaller side. In an interview, he said his ego was too big to accept the role and it would have been one where he wouldn't have been able to shine. We wonder if he regrets not starring on one of the biggest shows of all time!
Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts, was able to play his role so convincingly because he was once an actual gangster! He was arrested 28 times during his criminal years, starting when he was just a kid stealing nickels from a newsstand. Sirico allegedly worked with the Colombo crime family during his years as an active criminal. It was during one of his stints in jail that he was inspired to become an actor. He encountered an acting troupe made up of all ex-cons and decided to transform his career ambitions. He's been in several movies and TV shows over the years but The Sopranos is still what he's best known for.
His criminal past wasn't the only similarity Tony had with his character Paulie. Many of the unique qualities and experiences Paulie has on the show are based on real things from Sirico's life. Paulie's cleanliness and the way he dresses are all inspired by Tony himself. Sirico even said there came a point where he and his fictional character were "cross-pollinated" and he wasn't sure who was looking back at him in the mirror! Another huge aspect of his life that was adapted into the TV show: he lived with his mother for 16 years before her death. On the show, Paulie lived with his mother for years and was totally devoted to her.
That's probably not the best compliment in the world for Chase's mom! Livia (Nancy Marchand) was based heavily on Norma Chase, who was also sharp-tongued and a bit paranoid like the Soprano matriarch. Much like Tony, Chase was also in therapy for much of his life because of his mother's antics. It makes sense considering the entire pitch for The Sopranos was about a mobster in therapy and his abusive mother. Chase has even said that if the series had been a movie instead, it would have ended with Tony attempting to suffocate his mother and then chickening out!
This is definitely one of the funnier inside tales from the show. After the first few episodes of the show aired, real-life mobsters were contacting Chase and Gandolfini and letting them know they approved of the series. But they did give one nugget of advice: lose the shorts. There's a scene early on where Tony is wearing shorts at a barbecue and a mobster said that "a don does not wear shorts." Though, hilariously, Chase notes that no one ever had a problem with Tony constantly walking around in his underwear!
All over the country, Italian American coalitions and associations were speaking out against the show when it premiered. The American Italian Defense Association even sued Time Warner, who produced the show, for portraying Italian Americans as criminals! Other groups, like the National Italian American Association and Order Sons of Italy in America, ridiculed the show for portraying negative Italian American stereotypes. Chase, for his part, asserted he was only portraying a specific subculture of Italian Americans and not making a statement about them as a whole.
Italian American groups didn't just complain — they took action! Issues arose after the airing of the episode "Christopher," which dealt with a Columbus Day Parade and the complicated relationship Italian Americans have with the holiday. Despite the show's stance as pro-Columbus Day, stars from the show were uninvited from participating in a real Columbus Day Parade. The Columbus Citizens Foundation, the organizers of the New York parade, objected to Mayor Bloomberg inviting Lorraine Bracco and Dominic Chianese to the festivities. A District Court judge ruled that they could disinvite whoever they wanted and the two were left out of the parade. So, in solidarity, Bloomberg also sat it out and had lunch with the two TV stars!
In order to get cast in the show and seem "more Italian" in Chase's eyes, she overaccentuated her words in her audition and created Adriana's voice. Who doesn't know the iconic way she says "Christopher"?! But, it turns out, the actress hated her accent on the show. She felt that it sounded way too fake and would beg Chase to let her say "Chrissy" instead of her boyfriend's full name. But, Adriana's accent and pronunciation of Christopher's name is one of the most memorable parts of the series. So, it's no wonder fans still ask her to say "Chris-tuh-fuh" when they see her on the street!
It was never any secret that the New Jersey-set show was actually shot in Jersey, made evident by the many local hotspots featured on the show. Pizzaland from the opening credits and Holsten's restaurant where the series ends are both real places! Real stores were also used in the show, albeit their backstories were altered for the plotlines. One such instance was with Ramsey Outdoor, a popular Paramus sporting goods store. On the series it was owned by a Soprano associate with a gambling problem, leading the store to close. Residents were concerned when they watched the show that the real store was going out of business! Not, no, it was just some made-for-TV fiction.
Chase employed a slew of talented writers that definitely didn't stay still post-The Sopranos. Case in point: Matthew Weiner. Weiner wrote for the show throughout its run, and even executive produced the last few seasons. After The Sopranos, he developed Mad Men, where Don Draper felt like a natural follow-up to Tony Soprano. Other writers on the show also went on to create TV shows that were clearly influenced by the The Sopranos, too. Terence Winter created and wrote for Boardwalk Empire and Todd A. Kessler went on to co-create Damages.
This show definitely gives a lot of "f*cks"! In the first season alone the F-word is uttered almost 500 times. By the second seasons that number hits 700+. By one fan account, the F-word is said upwards of 3,500 times throughout the series! That's not including all the other swear words, Italian equivalents, and euphemisms used by characters. This kind of language could only be acceptable on premium cable and, let's be honest, the show would be so different without the swearing
There was absolutely no improvising on the set of The Sopranos! Sticking to the script was the number-one rule when shooting episodes of the show. Tony Sirico once said that it became almost a non-issue once the writers fully understood the "voice" of each character and actor. But, there is a story floating around concerning Chase's stance on actors who were reluctant to say a certain line. Reportedly, if an actor said to him "my character wouldn't say this," Chase responded, "who said it's your character?" That's one way to have complete control over your show!
It's just not called the Bada Bing in real life! Satin Dolls, a Lodi, New Jersey strip club, served as the Bada Bing owned by Silvio throughout the series. It served as one of the big meeting places for the "family" and there were more than a few shocking moments that took place in the parking lot! Satin Dolls is, predictably, a popular New Jersey hot spot. Also unsurprising is the fact that the former owner had mob ties. The club even closed for a bit in late 2017 because the owner was allegedly working with the Genovese crime family. Luckily, for any The Sopranos fans looking to visit the club, it has reopened since!
In many scenes a large mugshot can be seen hanging in the Bada Bing. It's not some famed mobster, though, it's actually a young Frank Sinatra! He was arrested in 1938 when he was 23 years old for adultery and seduction. Basically, a woman accused him of seducing her under the promise of marriage and then not fulfilling the promise. Yep, that was an actual thing you could be arrested for back in the day! The mugshot hanging in the Bing seems fitting as Sinatra was definitely the type that would be hanging with this gang and frequenting the strip club!
Real mafia members would often contact the show and let them know how realistic everything they were doing was (except for Tony's shorts, of course!). FBI agents even reported that they would listen to wiretaps from mobsters they were watching and hear them talking about The Sopranos. Many even thought that there was someone from the inside consulting on the show! That's how accurate they thought the series was. Some tapped phone calls even show that there were men a little worried they had a snitch among them reporting all about their lifestyle to the show!
When The Sopranos aired, you would think every cast member would have been on top of the world. But, for Sigler, it was a dark time. She was battling the eating disorder exercise bulimia and contemplated taking her life due to it. "Excercise bulimia" is much like the bulimia you frequently hear about but instead of physically purging food, Sigler would workout excessively to burn off the calories from everything she ate. It was during the show's third season that she realized she was too thin to play an Italian woman who belonged to a family that ate pasta regularly. Producers also realized this and it put her job in jeopardy. So, in an effort to keep the role on the show she loved, she worked towards recovery.
Borgese (his acting name is "Tony Darrow") played mobster Larry Barese throughout the entirety of The Sopranos. He also played "mob types" in movies and TV shows before he was on the beloved drama. Turns out he was so good at acting like a thug because he actually was one! During his time on the show, he was working with the Gambino crime family actively. He was convicted in 2009 of extortion from a crime committed in 2004 — when The Sopranos was still airing! He has continued acting, though, and — you guessed it — he's still playing gangsters!
To get the "mob girlfriend" look for Adriana, the actress had to spend upwards of four hours a day in hair and makeup. Most of that time was spent teasing her hair! The actress also has many tattoos that needed to be covered up in any episodes where she had her midriff showing or exposed arms. Matteo has said that the hair and makeup helped her get in character. She also added that she liked wearing stilettos and Adriana-esque outfits when merely doing line readings because it helped her embody Adriana!
Corrado a.k.a Junior got that nickname from an unlikely source — his co-star Tony Sirico! Sirico's wiseguy nickname from his gangster days was "Junior" and that tidbit found its way into the show. Ironically enough, Sirico originally auditioned for the role of Corrado! He didn't get the role, obviously, but he still made his mark on the character.
Some of the biggest scenes of the series were shot in a few different ways so that no one knew what would happen until it aired! When Adriana was killed, de Matteo shot the scene two ways: one where she drove away to safety and the one that aired, where she was killed by Sil. Chase wouldn't even tell the actors half the time which version of events would ultimately air! The series finale was probably the episode most affected by this practice. Writer Terence Winter said that there were upwards of 18 takes of the final scene, all subtly different from each other. Chase took weeks to figure out with one he actually wanted to air — and no one knew what it would be until we saw that screen go to black!
Before The Sopranos came around in 1999, a cable network had not broken into the Emmy category for Outstanding Drama Series. This HBO drama was the first cable series to be nominated for the award — and the first to win! In 2004, the show won the award for the fifth season. It raised the bar for cable series and, in the time since its first nomination, several premium channels have invaded the Emmys. (As well as plenty of streaming networks!)
The show was a gamechanger when it was included in the Emmy Awards in 1999, but that was just the beginning of The Sopranos' many nominations. Over the show's six (seven, if you ask Chase!) seasons, the series won 21 of its 112 nominations. Oh, and this includes the show being ineligible for awards in 2002 and 2005! Those 21 wins include three Outstanding Lead Actress wins for Edie Falco, three Outstanding Lead Actor wins for Gandolfini, and several Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series wins. The show was an Emmy magnet right from the start!
In order to play Bobby Baccalieri the way Chase intended him to be, Schirripa had to pack on the pounds. Luckily, not literally. He did wear a fat suit, though. Chase envisioned the character on the larger side, and on the episodes that were written, there were plenty of fat jokes aimed at the character. Schirripa noted that he wasn't that much bigger than Gandolfini so he was forced to wear a fat suit for the first two seasons he was on the show. The actor joked that he must have gotten fat enough in real-life that he didn't need it anymore after those two seasons!
Throughout the entirety of the show, Nancy Marchand was sick. But, she was phenomenal and loved being able to work. She loved it so much that she convinced Chase not to kill her off on the first season so that she could keep working! But, unfortunately, she lost her real-life battle with cancer after season two. Terence Winter convinced Chase to write a farewell episode for her (something he admitted was difficult) and through CGI magic, they were able to give Livia a proper send-off. They superimposed Marchand's head on another actress's body, repurposing lines from the previous seasons to put together a final conversation between Livia and Tony. The early '00s CGI may not be the greatest, but the episode was a perfect goodbye to the Soprano matriarch.
His faux-dad must have rubbed off on him a little! Iler, who played youngest Soprano AJ, was arrested in 2001 for armed robbery and possession of marijuana. He was 16 at the time and ended up pleading guilty to the crimes. He did get off relatively easy, though, with three years of probation. It seems that he was making the same poor mistakes as his character at the time of his crimes. A few years later, the actor was present during a raid of an illegal underground poker club but wasn't arrested.
Who better to make a fictional gangsters' clothes than a tailor who made a real gangsters' clothes? Van Zandt turned to famed mobster John Gotti's tailor to make his classic suits. The actor also put on 70 pounds before the series began in order to better play an Italian mobster. Not to mention the crazy bouffant he created that was perfect for his character! The touch of Gotti in his hand-tailored costumes adds so much authenticity to his role!
Everyone knows "Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3 as the defining song from The Sopranos. But before that was chosen as the theme song, Chase had something different in mind. He originally wanted to start every episode with a different song. But, other producers and the network rightfully agreed that it would be confusing and they needed something to stay constant on this chaotic show! So, in a concession, Chase decided to end every episode with a different song instead. The music became part of the storytelling and almost all of the songs used on the show were handpicked by Chase himself. He noted that not every song he picked was a "cool song" because, in going for authenticity, he tried to nail what these people would have actually been listening to. Because let's be real, none of us listen to "cool music" all the time!
Bracco has never been a stranger to playing the "mob girlfriend" type. As Karen Hill in Goodfellas, she cornered the market on that type of role. So, inevitably, it led to her being typecast. She also felt, after Goodfellas, that she couldn't do anything new or better with that type of role so why try again? When The Sopranos came around, she didn't want to play another "mob wife" — she wanted the juicer role of Dr. Melfi. Bracco has said that it was difficult to play Melfi, though, since she is so reserved and repressed which is starkly opposite from the loud, explosive personality the actress has!
Playing Tony Soprano was an emotionally taxing role for James Gandolfini. As such, he was sometimes a little difficult to work with on set and frequently simply refused to work. He often felt so bad about his behavior that he would treat the cast and crew to gifts the next day. But, in 2002, his refusal to work went to the new heights when he disappeared for several days. Everyone began to fear the worst until, four days after he failed to show up to work, Gandolfini called the main production office and asked for a car to take him home. Despite his reported "bad boy" behavior, the cast and crew still, to this day, have nothing but great things to say about the late actor.
Many seasons wouldn't follow the traditional pattern of when one season would end and the other would begin. Oftentimes there would be long gaps between seasons. This was actually for a good reason! David Chase was feeling burnt out between seasons. Even after everything wrapped, he barely got time off. He'd have postproduction work to do and, by the end of it all, got a mere two weeks off before getting to work on the next season. So, at the suggestion of Steven Van Zandt, Chase decided to forgo the typical 12-month season in TV and stretch things out a little longer to get some time off. This not only made fans wait a little bit longer in between seasons but also made the series ineligible for awards during certain years.
After a few successful years on the show, the cast began to want much more money. They knew HBO was making plenty of dough — especially off the show! — but they weren't seeing much of it. Several members of the cast staged a sit-in which shut down the set (what Falco called in an interview "Occupy Vesuvio") as they worked to renegotiate their contracts. Producer Brad Grey likened the mentality to these people really thinking they were in the mob! Gandolfini had one of the biggest disputes and it threatened the entire show. In the end, though, he got what he wanted and made sure his castmates did too. In order to thank them for sticking by him and to pad their pockets a bit, he gave every main cast member $33,333 in his trailer one day.