The Sopranos is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. It took the overused concept of the Mafia and made them human in a way that had never been done before. Tony Soprano was a killer, but he was also a family man. He could be funny and charming, as well as scary and threatening. Tony felt like a real man, who you might be unfortunate enough to encounter in your daily life. The Sopranos was a show about a family, in both the real and the Mafia sense of the word. The show managed to make its resident gangsters seem likeable, to the point where you started to root for them, and hope that they succeeded in committing crimes.
We are here today to look into the history of one of the funniest and darkest TV show ever made. From the poor attempt at bringing Livia back from the dead, to its realistic portrayal of the New Jersey Mafia.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Sopranos!
15. The Criminals In The Cast
Some members of The Sopranos cast were convicted of crimes before the show began. The most notable of which was Tony Sirico, who was connected to the Colombo crime family in the ’70s. As the show was being produced, there were other members of the cast who would go on to commit crimes of their own.
Robert Iler, who played A.J. Soprano, was arrested in 2001 for the armed robbery of two tourists from Brazil, as well as Marijuana possession. He served three years probation.
Tony Darrow, who played Larry Barese, was revealed to be an active member of the Gambino crime family. He was charged with extortion, after maiming a man who owed money to a loan shark. He managed to get his sentence reduced to house arrest and probation.
The most serious real life crime belongs to Lillo Brancato Jr, who played Matthew Bevilaqua on the show. In 2005, he was charged with second-degree murder, after he took part in a burglary which resulted in a police officer being killed. He served eight years in prison and returned to his acting career upon release.
14. The Posthumous Livia
One of the most important people in Tony Soprano’s life was his mother, Livia. She was a cruel and domineering woman, whose abuse contributed to the creation of the monster that we know of as Tony Soprano.
In the second season of The Sopranos, Tony gives his mother a set of stolen airline tickets to use (which heavily dates the show, as you couldn’t do things like that after 9/11). It was planned for Livia to testify against her own son in court, which would have been an important plot point in the next season of the show.
Livia’s plotline had to be scrapped, as her actress, Nancy Marchand, passed away after Season 2 finished production. The show had to acknowledge her passing, yet they did it in the most bizarre way possible.
It would have made sense to establish that Livia had passed away in her sleep, during the gap between Season 2 and 3. Instead, they CGI’d her head onto the body of another actress, for an unusual scene where she reacts to Tony’s statements in a nonsensical way. Later on in the episode, they establish that Livia died in her sleep, which is what they should have said to begin with.
13. The Fate Of The Missing Russian
One of the most popular episodes of The Sopranos is called “Pine Barrens”. Christopher and Paulie are sent to collect money from a Russian gangster, named Valery. An argument breaks out between the three and Paulie decides to kill Valery. They take him out to the Pine Barrens area of New Jersey, in order to finish Valery off and bury him. What they don’t realize, however, is that Valery was a member of the Russian Secret Service. He manages to escape his captors, while Paulie and Christopher are left to survive for a night in the wilderness.
The question of what happened to Valery is likely the second-most asked question about The Sopranos (after Tony’s fate in the ending). He never shows up again, nor is there any backlash from the Russian mob.
Valery’s fate has actually been revealed in interviews with the people involved with the creation of the episode. According to Terrence Winter (the writer of “Pine Barrens”), Valery was found by a Boy Scout troop out in the woods. The injuries he suffered led to brain damage, which caused Valery to forget what happened to him. Christopher would later run into Valery, with the Russian having no memory of their previous encounter.
12. You Look Familiar?
As The Sopranos is about an organized crime family that operates out of New Jersey, it is only natural that certain bands and movies be referenced by the cast. The mobsters on the show will gleefully re-enact scenes from The Godfather and Goodfellas at the slightest provocation. There are also numerous references to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, as well as Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
It seemed that no one in The Sopranos cast noticed that some of their associates looked familiar. Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) appeared in The Godfather Part II as Johnny Ola. Lorraine Braco (Dr. Melfi), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy), and Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo) all had major roles in Goodfellas.
The characters in The Sopranos make numerous references to The E Street Band, without anyone noticing that Silvio looks exactly like their guitarist. Steve Van Zandt has been a longtime member of The E Street Band, with acting being a secondary career to his music. The show also makes numerous references to Franki Valli and The Four Seasons (most notably in the classic scene where Tony talks about Gary Cooper). Frankie Valli would later be cast on the show as Rusty Millio.
11. The Breaking Bad Reference
The Sopranos is considered to be one of the greatest crime shows ever made. There have been other challengers to this title since, which have their own fan bases. Shows like The Wire, The Shield, and True Detective all have fans who don’t rate The Sopranos as highly as their favourite TV programmes.
Breaking Bad is another contender to The Sopranos’ throne. Some have argued that the concept of Breaking Bad is essentially the same as The Sopranos, with the main difference being that no one knows the protagonist is a gangster.
The creators of Breaking Bad managed to sneak in a subtle reference The Sopranosi. A character named Juan Bolsa was introduced in the third series of Breaking Bad. He is a high-ranking member of the Juárez Drug Cartel and acts as their contact to Gus Fring. The name Juan Bolsa can be translated into “John Sack”. This is a reference to Johnny Sack (John Sacrimoni), who is one of the highest ranking members of the New York Mafia in The Sopranos.
10. The Reverse Goodfellas
Two of the main actors who appeared in The Sopranos also suffered terrible fates in the movie Goodfellas. Michael Imperioli played Michael “Spider” Gianco, who gets shot in the foot by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) when he forgets to bring him his drink at a card game. When Spider later tells Tommy to go eff himself, he gets shot several times in the chest.
Goodfellas opens with the three main characters taking a man out into the woods to bury him. They open the trunk of their car and find him still alive. Tommy stabs him repeatedly in the chest, in order to finish him off. We later discover that this man is Billy Batts, played by Frank Vincent. The reason he is murdered is because he insults Tommy in a bar.
Both Michael Imperioli and Frank Vincent managed to recreate their fates in Goodfellas on other people in The Sopranos. A baker talks smack to Christopher in one episode, so he shoots him in the foot and tells him that “It happens“. When Phil Leotardo kills Angelo Garepe, he does it by dragging him into the trunk of his car, wrapping him in plastic and shooting him.
9. Paulie Was A Real-Life Gangster
One of the main characters in The Sopranos is Paulie Walnuts (Paulie Gualtieri). He is one of Tony Sopranos oldest companions and most loyal soldiers. Much of the dark humour in The Sopranos comes from Paulie and his wacky antics. He remained one of the most popular characters on the show throughout its run, and he may have been the last surviving member of the DiMeo crime family (depending on how you interpret the ending).
Paulie Walnuts was played by Tony Sirico, who may have been the perfect casting choice for a member of the Mafia. In his youth, Tony Sirico was arrested 28 times for numerous different crimes, which he performed while working for the Colombo crime family. He served two different prison sentences in his lifetime. The first was a thirteen-month sentence for robbery and the second was twenty months for a felony weapons possession charge. Tony Sirico first took up acting in prison, where he meet a troupe that was composed of previous convicts, who tried to help prisoners take up Drama. Taking up acting has likely saved Tony Sirico’s life.
8. Lady Gaga’s Debut
Most people were introduced to Lady Gaga when her first single, “Just Dance”, became a huge hit in 2008. This was not her first foray into show business, however, as Lady Gaga had appeared in TV shows before her music career took off.
Lady Gaga’s first onscreen appearance was in an episode of The Sopranos that was broadcast in 2001. She appeared in “The Telltale Moozadell”, as one of A.J.’s classmates. She is the red-haired girl, who breaks into the school after hours. A.J. and his friends use the swimming pool, before throwing all of the school’s trophies into the water.
The Sopranos wasn’t the last time that Lady Gaga appeared on a TV show before finding fame. She would also appear on an MTV reality show, called Boiling Points, which involved pulling pranks on members of the public. Lady Gaga was eating salad in a restaurant, before being called away by a phone call. The staff took her meal away, and then returned it to her straight from the garbage when she complained.
7. The Ghost Of Big Pussy
For a show that was supposed to be about criminals, The Sopranos featured lots of references to the supernatural. The question of death and what happens after we die is something that is touched on at several different points in the series. When Paulie goes to see a psychic, he is shocked to discover that the ghosts of his enemies are mocking him (through the psychic). There is no possible way that the psychic could have known all of those facts about Paulie’s victims.
If you watched The Sopranos closely, then you would have seen a ghost yourself. In the episode “Proshai, Livushka”, Livia Soprano’s funeral is being held. As Tony opens a hallway cabinet, we can see Big Pussy’s reflection in the mirror. Tony looks over to where Big Pussy should be standing as if he expected to see someone there. Big Pussy was killed in the finale of the previous season, meaning that we were witnessing his ghost in the mirror.
6. Help From The FBI
Throughout the initial seasons of The Sopranos, Tony is being investigated by Agent Dwight Harris of the FBI. As time went on, Harris is taken off of Tony’s case and put into a counter-terrorism unit. He still makes it a point to go visit Tony from time to time, and it is suggested that there is a mutual respect between the two.
In the final episode of the series, Agent Harris gives Tony the crucial piece of information that allows him to gain the upper hand on Phil Leotardo. By using Agent Harris’ tip off, Tony’s men are able to kill Phil, before he can do the same to Tony.
When Agent Harris finds out about Phil Leotardo’s death, he happily says that “We’re gonna win this thing!” This is a reference to former FBI supervisor Lindley DeVecchio, who said the same thing upon hearing of the death of a certain mobster. It was revealed the DeVecchio was passing on information to the Mafia.
5. Tony Went On Strike
There are many things that can derail an amazing TV show. All it takes is for a key member of the production staff to leave, or for an actor to grow tired of his role, to sink the quality of something that was once incredible. It could even be something that the creators of the show have no control over. One of the main contributing factors to the decline of Heroes was the Writer’s Guild of America strike of 2007.
The Sopranos could have ended prematurely, due to union action on behalf of the show’s main actor. Once filming finished on Season 4, James Gandolfini entered a pay dispute with HBO, over the money the series was making on DVD sales. These issues went on so long that they delayed the production of Season 5.
When James Gandolfini and HBO finally settled matters, there was still the issue of squaring things with the rest of the cast. Gandolfini called all of the main actors from the show into his trailer and gave them $33,333 each.
4. The Double Takes
As The Sopranos was made for HBO, it featured a lot of content that would make it unsuitable for broadcast on a non-subscription service. The show featured numerous expletives in each episode, as well as graphic violence and nudity. Along with OZ (another HBO show), The Sopranos led the way in pushing the boundaries of what could be done on a TV show.
When The Sopranos exploded in popularity, there was interest in the show being released on basic cable. This meant that the show would have to be edited for inappropriate content, which would mean that a good chunk of The Sopranos would need to be censored.
Thankfully, we were spared from the cast having to perform voice-overs for their swear words. The producers of the show actually filmed alternate takes of all of their objectionable material, in case the show did make its way to channels other than HBO. This meant that footage existed for the actors using alternatives to swear words (like freakin’ or shoot), and all of the nudity had alternate takes where the actresses wore bikini tops or lingerie.
3. Goodfellas 2: The Revenge Of Billy Batts
The Sopranos almost never made it to air. After the pilot was filmed, HBO shelved the project for seven months. This convinced most of the people involved with the show that it would never be commissioned for a full series. David Chase even approached HBO about filming more scenes and releasing it as a movie. When HBO gave the greenlight for a season to be produced, they were lucky to still be able to use most of the same cast from the pilot. As such, the pilot was used as the first episode of the show.
When the pilot episode was being cast, two actors who were being courted for the roles of Tony & Carmela Soprano. Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco were the first choices for the show. The two had starred as the leads in Goodfellas, where they played Henry and Karen Hill. If they had accepted the roles, then the show would have essentially been a sequel to Goodfellas. Ray Liotta declined the role, as he wanted to avoid being typecast as a gangster. Lorraine Bracco read for the role of Carmela, but ultimately pursued the role of Dr. Melfi instead, which she eventually won.
2. The Columbus Day Controversy
In The Sopranos episode called “Christopher”, Silvio is furious about a Native-American organization which is planning to boycott the upcoming Columbus Day Parade. The episode deals with the conflicting views of historical figures like Christopher Columbus. Silvio sees Columbus as a great man, who discovered America, while the protesters see him as nothing more than a slaver. Ultimately, Silvio misses the Parade and the protests, as he is too busy gambling (a fact which Tony later rubs in his face).
The episode actually had real life consequences, as members of The Sopranos cast who had been invited to the 2002 Columbus Day Parade had their invitations rescinded. Mayor Bloomberg had personally invited Dominic Chianese and Lorraine Bracco to the event. The organizers of the event actually went to court to prevent the Mayor from inviting cast members of The Sopranos to the Parade, as they felt that the show made Italian-Americans look bad.
1. The Mafia Thought The Show Was Too Realistic
The Sopranos was a show that was forced to react to real life events. After 9/11, a show set so near New York couldn’t just ignore the major changes in America. The FBI agents who used to dog Tony and his crew were now moved to counter-terrorism units, with organised crime no longer being a priority for them. When Tony and his gang start dealing with people from the middle east, they begin to question whether their code of silence applies to potential terrorists.
In the same way that real life influenced The Sopranos, there were things that the show affected in reality. The actual mobsters who operated out of New Jersey started to suspect that one of their own was leaking information to David Chase and the producers of the show. FBI agents would tell the writers of The Sopranos that they would hear the discussions between gangsters on a wiretap. Instead of talking about plans or crimes they had committed, the mobsters would just talk about The Sopranos and how accurate it was to their real life situation.
Was The Sopranos secretly a documentary this whole time? Did a member of the New Jersey Mafia leak secrets to David Chase? It’s possible but unlikely. If there was a rat in the inside, then you think he would have been able to come up with a better ending.