Whaddya Hear, Whaddya Say You Check Out These Secrets About The Sopranos?

In honor of The Sopranos turning 25 on January 10, we're revealing behind the scenes facts about the seminal HBO drama you might not know.

By Tierney Bricker Jan 10, 2024 11:00 AMTags
Watch: "Sopranos" Diner Honors James Gandolfini

Tony Soprano once said, "Those who want respect, give respect," and, 25 years later, viewers are still paying their respects to The Sopranos

Considered one of the best TV series of all time, The Sopranos premiered on HBO on Jan. 10, 1999, introducing anti-hero Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini), his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), kids Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) and his wild world of mob wiseguys. Created by David Chase, the crime drama ran for six seasons, won 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes and, of course, delivered one of Hollywood's most controversial series finales of all-time. (Cue up Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"!)

While The Sopranos may have ended its 86-episode murder-filled run in 2007, viewers were brought back to New Jersey in 2021 with the release of The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film starring Gandolfini's son Michael Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano. And there's still speculation that a spinoff series is in the works as Chase agreed to a five-year first-look deal to develop content for HBO, HBO Max and Warner Bros. 

All the Famous Faces From The Sopranos

Alas, until a new project is announced, fans can take comfort in knowing there's a jampacked cannoli box-worth of new content to enjoy.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, HBO celebrated the acclaimed series by releasing never-before-seen deleted footage and expanded access to behind-the-scenes content within the new, in-app special collection on Max.

So, while we might not have f--kin' ziti, we do have these secrets about The Sopranos for you to enjoy, including the time the cast revolted and Lady Gaga's cameo:

The Initial Pitch

Creator David Chase originally envisioned his story about a mobster who enters into therapy to talk out the problems he has with his mother as a feature film starring Robert de Niro.

"A few years after I came up with this pitch, I had one of my first meetings at Brillstein-Grey," he told Tom Fontana in a conversation for the May 2007 issue of Written By. "My manager, Lloyd Braun, walked me to the elevator after the meeting and said, 'I want you to know that we believe that you have inside you a great television series.' Huh? I had never thought that way. I didn't care about creating a series. Really. But I was, I guess touched is the word. I was moved by this confidence. I didn't think he was bullshitting."

He sold the pilot to Fox in 1995, who quickly passed on the finished script, as did every other network, until HBO came to the rescue and The Sopranos was born. 

First Choice for Tony

It's hard to imagine anyone else smoking Tony Soprano's cigars but James Gandolfini, but Chase initially had someone else in mind for the iconic role: Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt.

 "Steven came on VH1, when they were inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Steven gave the speech," Chase told Vanity Fair in 2012. "He was very, very funny and magnetic. I said to my wife, 'That guy has got to be in the show!'"

Recalling his audition, Van Zandt described it as "a very funny moment" when he was in the waiting room with none other than Gandolfini. 

"Now, I don't know if he was there because HBO had decided they were not going to cast me because I'd never acted before—which is what they ended up telling David—or whether Jimmy was there for another part," Van Zandt told the publication. "I never asked him."

Van Zandt, of course, went on to star as Silvio Dante on the series for its entire run.

Behind Every Great Man...

And just as hard as it is to picture another actor playing Tony, it's equally as difficult to imagine anyone other than Edie Falco playing his wife Carmela. But it was Lorraine Bracco who was initially in consideration.

"After doing GoodFellas, I was offered every Mafia gal, girl, wife, mistress, daughter available," Bracco told Vanity Fair. "And I said to them, 'No, I don't want to do that. I did it. Can't do it better.' I called up my agent the day before I'm going in to meet David, and I go, 'I don't want Carmela—I want Dr. Melfi.'"

The Inspiration for Dr. Melfi

As much as The Sopranos was about the mafia, it was also a show deeply concerned with psychiatry, as evidenced by Tony's sessions with Bracco's Dr. Melfi. And it turns out that Chase drew from his own life in creating the character.

"My last therapist, Lorraine Kaufman in L.A., is the model for Dr. Melfi," he revealed to Rolling Stone in 2006. "She had the same way of cutting through your bulls--t." 

He went on to reveal Dr. Kaufman also helped him develop several other characters.

"After three or four seasons, she wrote me a breakdown of the Soprano family," he shared. "This is not a bible, but every once in a while we get it out. Strangely enough, these fictional characters have, in fact, behaved in the way she predicted they might, even though we might have forgotten she ever wrote it."

A Different Role for Drea de Matteo

Drea de Matteo may have catapulted to fame thanks to her unforgettable performance as Christopher's girlfriend Adriana La Cerva (may she rest in peace), but it almost never happened.

During initial casting, Chase told her she "wasn't Italian enough for the show," de Matteo told the Daily Herald in 2014. "I thought it was about opera singers. I had my hair back in a ponytail with no New York accent," she admitted. "Had I known what the show was about I would have been more prepared."

Despite her rough audition, she earned a one-line role as an unnamed hostess and eventually won Chase over with her performance. 

"I went from being a day player to a recurring character to a series regular," de Matteo said. "It was all David Chase having faith in me. If I'd auditioned, I wouldn't have gotten the part. I got really lucky."

Robert Iler's Arrest

While viewers watched as Tony's son A.J. flirted with his father's criminal lifestyle over the course of the series, life began to imitate art in 2001.

As season three was airing, the young actor who played the crime boss' son, Robert Iler, was arrested in New York and charged with the armed robbery of two Brazilian tourists and possession of marijuana. He was only 16 at the time. Iler eventually pleaded guilty to a single count of larceny and was given three years' probation.

Jamie-Lynn Sigler's Intervention

In 2005, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who starred as Tony's daughter Meadow, opened up about her battle with exercise bulimia that had become her main "source of control" during the show's early days. And she credited her eventual ability to overcome the disorder, in part, to producers on the show.

"The Sopranos was a big thing, because they had asked me to put on weight," she told Huffington Post in 2015. "They were concerned, I think, for my health, but [also], they just didn't feel I was the picture of a girl that lived in an Italian household that ate pasta all the time, so they were big catalysts in me taking a step back and realizing the issue."

And the (History-Making) Emmy Goes to...

After becoming the first cable TV show to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series in its first year eligible, The Sopranos became the first such series to take home the honor in 2004 after four prior nominations.

The celebrated show not only ushered in the age of the TV anti-hero, but it helped foster the careers of producers who would go on to create or produce Mad Men (Matthew Weiner), Boardwalk Empire (Terence Winter), Damages (Todd A. Kessler), Girls (Ilene S. Landress) and Chicago Med (Diane Frolov).

The Real Bada-Bing

While the show mostly filmed on soundstages at Silvercup Studios in Queens, they did venture out on location in New York and New Jersey at times. And any time Tony and his crew were at the iconic Bada-Bing strip club, that was a real place, known in the real world as Satin Dolls, a "gentlemen's club" on State Route 17 in Lodi, N.J.

A CGI Livia

When Chase cast Nancy Marchand as Tony's mother, Livia Soprano, he knew the actress wasn't long for this world.

"She had cancer the whole time we worked with her, but it was not spoken of," Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. "Nancy said to David, 'Please keep me working. That's keeping me alive.'"

She passed away of lung cancer and emphysema in 2000, while Chase and his writers were already at work on scripts for the third season. Having to cut her story short, but knowing how central his relationship with Livia was in Tony's story, the creator felt compelled to write the death into the show. And they got creative when it came time to putting Livia's final scenes on screen, using outtakes of old scenes while also CGI'ing Marchand's head onto another actress' body.

It marked one of the first instances of using CGI to solve the issue of an absent actor and it was not well received by critics.

"Avert your eyes," Slate wrote of the episode, "the scene is excruciating to watch."

Tony Sirico's Colorful Past

Tony Sirico didn't have to look far for inspiration when playing the memorable character Paulie Walnuts. Prior to becoming an actor, he'd been arrested 28 times, convicted of several crimes, and completed two separate stints behind bars.

Alleged to be an associate of the Colombo crime family "Caporegime" Jimmy "Green Eyes" Clemenza during the late '60s and early '70s, he and his Sopranos co-star Vincent Pastore were seen meeting with Clemenza and his brother at a Christmas party in Little Italy in 1999, while Clemenza was under FBI surveillance. 

Gandolfini's Generosity

After season four, production on The Sopranos came to a halt due to a pay dispute with HBO. As explained in Vanity Fair's 2012 oral history of the show, there's was an "Occupy Vesuvio" sit-in on the set before star Gandolfini stepped up and forked over his own earnings to get the show back on the road.

"Jim called all the regulars into his trailer and gave us $33,333 each, every single one of us," actor Steven Schirripa revealed. "He said, 'Thanks for sticking by me.'"

An Inside Man?

As executive producer Terence Winter revealed in Vanity Fair, the show had such reach that real mobsters were watching the show and were struck by how true-to-life it was.

"One F.B.I. agent told us early on that on Monday morning they would get to the F.B.I. office and all the agents would talk about The Sopranos," he told the publication in 2012. "Then they would listen to the wiretaps from that weekend, and it was all Mob guys talking about The Sopranos, having the same conversation about the show, but always from the flip side. We would hear back that real wiseguys used to think that we had somebody on the inside. They couldn't believe how accurate the show was."

Making Contact

Not only were mafiosos watching, but they had notes. During an appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, James Gandolfini revealed that he'd received multiple phone calls from "wiseguys" who complimented the actor on his work. But during one early call, the caller critiqued the shorts Tony wore to a neighborhood BBQ in the show's pilot. 'A don never wears shorts," the guy told the actor over the phone. And from then on, Tony never wore shorts again.

Gandolfini's Struggles Revealed

At the end of 2002, Gandolfini's demons nearly got the best of him as the world learned through papers related to a divorce filing that all was not well.

Gandolfini's wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration," author
Brett Martin wrote in his 2013 book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, as excerpted in GQ. "To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera—he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head—it was a plausible scenario."

In response to his wife Marcy's 2002 filing, Gandolfini's spokesman confirmed that the actor had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse but claimed "it was a problem that existed in the past."

Where's Our Leading Man?

Gandolfini had a passive-aggressive habit of simply not showing up to set, sometimes going days without calling. One such time in 2002, he disappeared for four days, causing a huge financial loss, with some involved expecting the actor to turn up dead. But then the show's production office received a call from him, phoning from a beauty salon in Brooklyn.

"To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, asking to use the phone," Brett Martin wrote in his book Difficult Men. "He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home."

John Gotti's Influence

Notorious mob boss John Gotti may have been serving a life sentence when The Sopranos debuted, but that didn't stop him from have some sort of influence on the series (aside from the obvious mafia of it all).

As confirmed in a 2009 Guardian feature on Steve Van Zandt when the musician landed the role of Silvio Dante, he reached out the Gotti's tailor to have the man make his bespoke suits for the series.

The Goodfellas Connection...

The Sopranos didn't just share its subject matter with the classic 1990 mob movie Goodfellas: Six series regulars appeared in the film (Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore and Frank Vincent), while 10 recurring cast members and 11 one-time guests stars did as well.

...and the One That Could've Been

In a 2001 interview on the Today show, Ray Liotta said he was offered an unspecified part on the show, but turned it down to focus on his film career.

"Having done Goodfellas, I mean, that's pretty much the ultimate in mafia everyday life," he elaborated on the reasoning in a 2003 interview with university newspaper The GW Hatchet. "And that show is pretty much structured around Tony Soprano. There was no way I was gonna shine. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do."

And while he said he loved Gandolfini, Liotta admitted, "But my ego's as big as anybody's."

Introducing Stefani Germanotta

Lady Gaga got her first acting role courtesy of the HBO series, appearing in a 2001 episode as "Girl at Swimming Pool #2" at just 15 years old. As a classmate at A.J.'s high school, she gets a good laugh when some punks toss their teacher's desk into the pool. 

But the future pop star wasn't impressed with her debut. In a 2021 interview with Entertainment Weekly's Awardist podcast, Gaga admitted that her performance on The Sopranos wasn't her best work.

"When I look back on that scene, I can see exactly what I did wrong in that scene," she shared. "I didn't know how to listen in a scene! I was supposed to laugh, and it was sort of like, cue, laugh.... I see it and I go, 'Oh, that's not a real laugh!'"

But Gaga isn't the show's only shocking cameo worth talking about as The Sopranos also welcomed Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael B. Jordan, Chandra Wilson, Will Arnett and Tony Hale in bit roles.

The Sopranos is streaming on Max.