It’s been 20 years since The Sopranos premiered on HBO and changed television forever. Starring James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, a mobster who struggles to juggle family life with crime family life, the show gave us an antihero who was complex and conflicting, which in turn made him one of the most compelling characters to ever grace the small screen. These days it’s not so strange for shows to feature main characters who are both lovable and morally irredeemable, but in 1999 it wasn’t exactly commonplace.
This wasn’t the only way that The Sopranos was revolutionary, though. The show is often cited as a watershed moment for television as it showed serial programming was a legitimate art form in the same way movies, literature, and theater are. And it’s still so popular among pop culture enthusiasts to this day that a prequel film is currently in the works.
Recently, showrunner David Chase, along with cast and crew members who helped bring his vision to life, sat down with Deadline for an illuminating interview about the show’s creation and enduring legacy. I highly recommend reading the interview in its entirety, but in the meantime here are five parts that stood out.
David Chase’s Depression Was Oversold
The Sopranos differentiated itself from other crime sagas through its exploration of depression and Tony’s relationship with his mother (who was ranked #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest TV villains). Throughout the years, though, fans have been led to believe that these aspects of the series were inspired by Chase’s upbringing. In the past, he’s been vocal about his struggles with depression and sometimes let on that he had a bad childhood. This all appears to have been somewhat exaggerated, though.
“I oversold the whole depression thing because I wasn’t really that familiar with the press, and wanted to impress on people what it was about, why Tony was depressed. I oversold how unhappy I had been as a child. I would like to get rid of that whole depression thing. I’ve gone on Wikipedia and I see it says there, he had problems with his youth and a lot of depression. I’m sorry to be known like that.”
Later in the interview, he states that while his childhood was far from perfect, he had more happy experiences than he did bad ones. That said, he also told Deadline that his mom once threatened him with a fork, so he did have some valid reasons for being upset.
Steven Van Zandt Almost Played Tony Soprano
After seeing Van Zandt induct The Rascals into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and finding him entertaining, Chase had Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist read for the main part. His audition was funny and impressed the show’s creator, but Van Zandt felt guilty about accepting the role because he’d have been taking work away from someone who deserved it more.
“These guys work their whole lives, they go to classes, they do off-Broadway, and here comes a rock and roll guitar player off the street,” Van Zandt recalled.
To make the rocker feel more at ease, Chase wrote a brand new character for him and Silvio Dante was born. The rest is history. Funnily enough, Van Zandt also recommended Gandolfini for the role of Tony having been impressed with his turn in True Romance. I’d say it worked out well for both parties in the end.
Lorraine Bracco Didn’t Want to do the Show
There’s certainly no shortage of Goodfellas actors in The Sopranos. 27, to be exact. Suffice to say, you can understand why some actors were wary of too much crossover between the series and Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece.
At first, Bracco, who played Dr. Jennifer Melfi in the show, didn’t even want to read the script. She’d already been a part of the best Mafia movie ever made and didn’t want to repeat herself by starring in something similar. But after being talked into reading the material and realizing how different The Sopranos was to Goodfellas, she quickly changed her tune.
“I loved the psychiatrist relationship, the intimacy between Melfi and Tony,” she said. “We’ve never seen it before. I loved that I could play an educated Italian woman because I’ve never seen that before.”
I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t repeat herself. Not only did The Sopranos distinguish itself from other gangster stories, but Melfi is unlike Karen Hill or any other character in Goodfellas.
HBO Was Hesitant to Pick the Show Up
The Sopranos is now widely regarded as an influential show that paved the way for the golden age of prestige television we’re currently living in. Of course, it’s impossible for a show to change the world unless it’s given a chance to shine in the first place. In the case of The Sopranos, the network was worried about taking the risk.
“We all knew it was good, but at the time there was a real debate about having as the lead a guy who is a stone criminal, who would kill somebody,” said Carolyn Strauss, HBO’s former president. “You had a lot of those guys in Oz, but a lot of the people who took you through that story were not those guys.”
According to Chase, he wanted the show to be rejected so he could focus on making movies. To his dismay I’m sure, The Sopranos was eventually picked up, and people are still talking about the show 20 years later.
Nancy Marchand Wanted to Act Until the Very End
After being so impressed with Marchand’s performance as Tony’s mother, Chase wanted her to return when the show was greenlit for more seasons. Unfortunately, Marchand passed away in the year 2000, which led to Chase and co. using CGI to give her character a send-off. That didn’t go down too well with some folks.
“A lot of people thought it was an insane move or a coarse move. A lot of people didn’t like it, thought it was insensitive and some people thought it was opportunistic, or just badly done,” he said. “I wish it had been better done but I didn’t think it was opportunistic. I mean, that’s the way she wanted to go out, acting.”
He also revealed that Marchand asked him to let her work, despite her deteriorating health at the time. Losing talented performers — or any life, for that matter — is never easy. However, Marchand’s final days saw her portray one of the show’s most memorable characters, and she went out doing what she loved.