The cult mob show The Sopranos ended 13 years ago with an inconclusive cut to black. Jonathan Dean learns that wasn't quite the end of the story.
In May 2012, after the funeral for the mother of their former colleague Steve Van Zandt, some VIPs from The Sopranos went for dinner. Five years on from the series finale, they were still friends. Van Zandt was Silvio Dante in the show and joining him were James Gandolfini, who played the lead, Tony Soprano; Vincent Pastore, whose character was nicknamed Big Pussy; and David Chase, the man behind the masterpiece that changed television.
Round the table the chatter moved on to a new Chase project, one with special relevance to fans of the series who had fiercely chewed over the meaning of its ending. When the screen just went blank, was it a sign of Tony's death or, rather, a purgatory of uncertainty?
"People ask, 'Why did David end it like that'?" says Pastore. It's eight years later, just before travel was restricted last month, and he is chomping on a salad in the White Horse Tavern in New York, where Dylan Thomas drank too much, dying days later. Pastore's Big Pussy was the FBI rat killed at the end of series two. "Well, David didn't know what he wanted to do," the actor continues. "That's why he went blank with the screen, and also Jimmy wanted a break. Everyone did. But they were talking about doing a movie and coming back with Jimmy, because, at that dinner, David said to me, 'So, when do you want to come back to work'?"
"Anyway," says Pastore, who is fantastic company — a big, booming man and a constant riot of anecdote — "Jimmy said he had this thing he had to get done, then we'd get back. And he looked at me, right in the face, looked at David, and said, 'And you'd better bring Vinny back.' He said he'd figured it out. What they were going to do was say it was a dream that I died and that I was in witness protection. [In Pussy's final episode] Tony was sick and dreaming a lot, so it could have been a dream. So, yes, we were going to make a big movie. But, a year later, Jimmy passed away. So that was that out the window."
Somebody at a different table dares to breathe. If you are in the same pub as Pastore, it is impossible not to hang on every word. The way he tells it, not only did Tony survive, but there was going to be a movie of The Sopranos after the events of 2007. This is striking, given that Chase has spent 13 years pleading ambiguity. "If I was going to tell you that, I would have told you," is Chase's stance.
"But I was sitting there that night and heard that conversation," Pastore insists. He was close to Gandolfini. "He could've been as big as Brando," he says, sighing.
Over the past weeks, when people ask what to watch or, indeed, rewatch on lockdown, a top suggestion has been The Sopranos. Nothing from the golden era of TV is held in similar esteem. On the first viewing you are gripped by the plot. On the second what stands out is the humour, which is surprisingly surreal. The number of fans watching its 85 hours again is growing, and not because they have run out of things to do.
The appetite for more can't be sated. This autumn there is a film, The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel starring Gandolfini's son, Michael, as a young Tony. Next month three cast members — including Pastore — were set to host talks at the London Palladium that will probably be postponed. But the other two actors on the tour, Michael Imperioli, who played Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti, and Steve Schirripa, who was Tony's latter-day right-hand man, brother-in-law Bobby Baccalieri Jr, are recording a podcast that will look at the series episode by episode. Over two days in New York I speak to all three.
Pastore lives in the Bronx, teaches acting in Manhattan and, from his days with Guy Ritchie on Revolver, tells of when they shot on the Isle of Man. "Madonna didn't like it there," he booms. "She kept saying, 'What do you do at night? I can't even get a beer'!"
He was in The Sopranos from the start. "We knew we had something," he says; but it was over very soon for the actor. When Big Pussy's snitching was discovered, he was killed by Tony on a boat. Pastore recalls lying on the ground, in character, when, all of a sudden, Gandolfini put a box on his belly. A note read "We will miss you"; illegal Cuban cigars were inside. Pastore was the first big character to go, the Pete Best of The Sopranos, leaving before the greatest acclaim and riches.
"I kept saying, 'Why did I have to get killed?' It bothered me a lot that I wasn't on that show," Pastore says. "I stopped watching. How would you feel? Careers were taking off and they were making good money. Those guys were getting, like, $100,000 an episode. I made $3,500. I got left behind."
Hours before I meet Pastore, I speak to Imperioli on the phone in Los Angeles. Christopher was the messiest mobster, hooked on drugs. Tony loved him, but he was beyond help, so he killed him. Christopher's relationship with Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo) is the show's nastiest. He was a firework that could not help but go off, although he always regretted doing so seconds later.
He lasted until the final series. Did Imperioli worry about being struck off earlier? "I didn't," he says. "Maybe I should have? I felt pretty secure. You couldn't kill all the main characters, and the Pussy thing was probably decided by David, so he would have one killed off early to create tension."
Christopher made it to the 83rd episode, three from the finish, when, spluttering after a car crash, he's finished off by Tony. It is distressing, even as deaths go, far from Vito Corleone's in The Godfather, who died doing something he loved.
"The takeaway for me," Imperioli says, "was Tony killed his nephew. We'd grown fond of Tony. He was likeable, so it's important toward the end to show that this guy was a selfish criminal. He's willing to stamp out his own flesh and blood. If Christopher was shot in the back, it would've been less impactful. Kinda boring."
When Imperioli, Pastore and Schirripa do their Sopranos speaking tour, they take questions from the audience. Many are about the ending. Once a woman had a go at Imperioli about a scene in which Christopher sits on a dog. "She expressed her outrage that I killed a dog, and I had to explain there was no dog I sat on," he says, exasperated. Then, of course, people ask about Gandolfini. Few worked with him more than Imperioli, and the pair exemplify the show. They lured us into empathy with sociopaths, and it is hard to think of finer, more influential writing.
"I saw Jim two weeks before he died," Imperioli says. "He had come down from the Tony thing. He was relaxed and happy, which makes it even more tragic that he died weeks later [he was 51]. He wasn't like the boss. He was more like a team captain."
Since the show finished, Imperioli has enjoyed constant work, but cannot, perhaps willingly, escape his finest hour. There are the live shows, the podcast; it is funny, I think, how he has sustained so much work from this. When he was filming the first series, he admits: "I didn't really have a lot of hope for it."
Schirripa played kind Bobby, who married Tony's sister Janice. The actor lives off Wall Street now, but was born in Brooklyn, which back then was a mob enclave. "Frankie DeCicco, who I knew since I was a kid, was blown up a couple of blocks from my house," he says. We meet at the actor's apartment and, as I am late for various reasons, he barks, "What is this? London time?" as we take the lift to the penthouse. That introduction, from somebody I just know from one mob role, could be intimidating. But as the East River glistens below, he just comes across as welcoming — a gentle giant, proud of what he was part of.
"It's probably the greatest show in history," he says with a warm smile. "To get on any show is impossible, but to get on that f****** show is hitting the lottery twice. I'm on a great show now — Blue Bloods. But it's not the same."
He gave up everything to join The Sopranos, leaving Las Vegas to head east. "I was just dabbling with acting," he admits. In his first year on the series he effectively spent $24,000 commuting to make $22,000. He was 41, with kids. Wasn't it risky to uproot himself so much for a show with a huge death rate?
"That was a concern," he says. "You never relaxed. I didn't buy an apartment until it was over, because I was afraid of getting killed off." What was the contract like? "It didn't mean anything. It was for six years, but you couldn't quit. Only they could get rid of you."
Bobby's death, though, in the penultimate episode, did feel like Corleone's. He was shot while looking at his beloved toy trains, and it was dignified, for a man who, thanks to his humility, had become an audience proxy.
"It was a badge of honour how they killed you," Schirripa says. "Some got a crappy death. Mine was spectacular! You wanted people to feel bad, and I heard that people cried."
How did he find out he was for the chop? "I was told about a month before," he says. "David came to my house. This was the boss. We didn't have that kind of relationship. He says, 'I guess you know why I'm here.' It's like a real f****** hit! I said, 'I guess so.' He sat across from me and didn't take his coat off. It was winter. He had a heavy coat. He tapped a pen."
Schirripa picks up a pen, rat-a-tat-tats on the table. "I asked, 'How's it going to happen?' And he was vague. We sat for 15 minutes. It was a little awkward and I said, thank you for changing my life. He said I deserved it, and that was it. We shot on Valentine's Day. That's how I found out."
He has done well since The Sopranos, with big roles, courtside seats at Knicks games, books and even a vegan pasta sauce range. That said, was Bobby ever a hindrance to his career? "Sure," he says. "They just wanted me to play a mob guy. It was hard to get out that box. People think, 'Let's get every guy with a vowel at the end of his name for a certain type of movie'. That's annoying." Is there anything left in the gangster genre anyway? "I don't know. It's all the same. A guy is betrayed, then it's, 'I'll break your f****** head! I'll break your f****** head!'"
The Sopranos, however, was different. One of its most memorable episodes simply had Tony and Bobby at a lake house. It was there, discussing death, that Bobby uttered the immortal line, "You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?", which has fed into the feverish discussion about whether or not Tony died.
"My opinion? He's alive and well in New Jersey," Schirripa says of Tony. He and Gandolfini spent a lot of time together. During the fan-favourite episode The Pine Barrens, Schirripa waved a dildo off screen to make his friend laugh, and he talks with respect about how Gandolfini once gifted 16 members of the cast, Schirripa included, $33,000 each.
He says Gandolfini knew he would for ever be associated with the show, but did not think that was bad. In the years after it finished he had got away from it a little anyway; his film Enough Said is a gorgeous and grown-up romcom. "He was in a much better mood," Schirripa says. "I was happy about that." He throws up his hands. What a waste. "Who knows what Jim would've done? There might have been a movie if he was still alive."
Go to talkingsopranos.simplecast.com. For updates on the live show, visit lwtheatres.co.uk