The Sopranos is a show considered by many to have single-handedly changed the nature of HBO programming. The drama brought the premium cable company into the upper echelons of television and, within a few years of The Sopranos’ premiere, HBO represented a new standard of TV.
During its years on air, The Sopranos was regularly nominated for a host of prestigious awards for its writing and directing including the Emmys and Golden Globes, as well as numerous wards for its lead and supporting actors. As a result of its critical acclaim, the series has gone down as one of the most influential and impactful television dramas ever produced.
But even shows of the highest standard are not without their behind-the-scenes controversies. If most television series cannot compete with the top-notch drama that appears in The Sopranos, the events surrounding its production certainly do.
As it turns out, this HBO drama has more than its fair share of secrets that would shock even its most loyal fans. From felony convictions, to real life mob connections, to temper tantrums on set, the making of The Sopranos was rife with issues. After this list, you’ll never think of this series the same way again.
Here are 15 Dark Secrets You Didn’t Know About The Sopranos.
15 Nancy Merchand’s Final Scenes Were CGI
One of the primary conflicts in the initial seasons of The Sopranos was Tony’s tense and twisted relationship with his mother, Livia Soprano. After actress Nancy Merchand died from lung cancer in 2000, showrunner David Chase had to cut Livia's storyline short in season 3.
But even with the shortened storyline, the creative minds behind the HBO drama were still confronted with a problem: how could they wrap up Livia Soprano’s unfinished narrative without their actress? The producers ended up coming up with a few creative solutions. In addition to inserting old outtakes into new scenes, filmmakers CGI’d Nancy Merchand’s head onto another actor’s body to complete Livia’s final scenes on the show.
The choice to superimpose Merchand’s features in post-production represented one of the first instances of using CGI to solve the issue of an absent actor in TV or film.
14 Tony Sirico Has His Own Criminal Past
While many actors like to do research into the lifestyle of their characters before taking on a role, Sopranos actor Tony Sirico had the ultimate well of knowledge to draw from for his character Paulie Walnuts.
Before joining The Sopranos, Sirico’s criminal record and professional resume were equal: he had 28 arrests and had taken 28 roles. He joined up with some neighbourhood mob types in his youth, leading to being arrested for robbery, weapons possession, and other serious charges. In the early 1970s, he decided to make a change and began to pursue what would become a successful acting career.
When auditioning for The Sopranos, Sirico actually wanted the role of Uncle Junior, but was offered Paulie instead. The actor only agreed to play Paulie on the condition that the character would never turn into a “rat.”
It seems Sirico’s mob instincts never left him after all.
13 The Mob Was Caught Talking About the Series by the FBI
Common viewers fascinated with the mob lifestyle weren’t the only types of people who found themselves engrossed in The Sopranos. As it would turn out, mob members themselves flocked to the HBO series.
One of the big questions surrounding The Sopranos when it aired was what crime family it could possibly be based off of. Even mob families themselves debated the question. Back in 1999 when The Sopranos first aired, the FBI caught members of the DeCavalcante family of New Jersey discussing the series on a wiretap.
The family got a kick out of tracing the similarities between the show and their actual lives, with some individuals on the tape convinced that The Sopranos had been referencing them personally.
It has never been confirmed that The Sopranos had been based off of any particular family, never mind the DeCavalcantes, but who knows - maybe those mob members were on to something.
12 Mob Members Would Regularly Call James Gandolfini
The Sopranos wouldn’t be the great show it is today without its lead actor, James Gandolfini. Gandolfini gave what might have been the best performance in his career with the HBO drama, encouraging the audience to empathize with a full-fledged criminal.
Members of the mob themselves recognized Gandolfini’s talent and appreciated the series’ authenticity. Gandolfini actually revealed on one episode of Inside the Actors Studio that he received multiple phone calls from “wise guys” complimenting his character. One individual even offered Gandolfini some sage advice. In the show’s pilot episode, Tony Soprano wears shorts to a neighbourhood barbecue. After it aired, Gandolfini received a particularly interesting phone call from a member of the mafia. “A don never wears shorts,” the individual insisted over the phone.
After the call, Tony Soprano was never costumed in those shorts again.
11 John Gotti’s Tailor Worked on Costumes
Perhaps the most infamous modern-day mobster was New York crime boss John Gotti. Though Gotti was already incarcerated by the time The Sopranos began and died shortly after in 2002, his legacy lived on in at least one way in the series.
When rock star Steve Van Zandt agreed to take on the role of Tony Soprano’s consigliere Silvio Dante, he knew he needed an authentic look to accompany such a unique character.
In order to do so, he went right to the source: John Gotti’s very own tailor. He also gained 70 pounds in order to transform himself from rock musician to a member of The Sorpanos crew.
His transformation went very well, indeed. Van Zandt’s performance as Silvio is one of the strongest aspects of The Sopranos to this day.
10 James Gandolfini’s Issues Led to Divorce
As if juggling the life drama of Tony Soprano weren’t enough, James Gandolfini had his own set of issues to sort through while The Sopranos was on air. In 2002, as The Sopranos was in its full swing, the lead actor of the HBO drama became embroiled in a nasty divorce that unfortunately led to some dirty secrets being leaked for all the public to hear. Gandolfini’s wife Marcy accused the actor of drug use, binge drinking, and infidelity. Though Gandolfini tried to remain silent on the issue, press attention on his divorce case forced him to offer up a statement.
The actor ended up admitting his drug use, but insisted that his bad habits were all in the past and were old news. Still, Gandolfini’s image was a little more tarnished after his divorce secrets leaked.
9 David Chase Had a Wild Temper on Set
Besides a rare cameo in season 2, series creator and Sopranos showrunner David Chase spent most of his time behind the camera. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t take part in some of the show’s drama himself.
Chase’s on-set behavior was revealed long after The Sopranos had completed its run in 2007. In a particularly damning GQ article, Chase was described as a temperamental, sarcastic, extremely particular leader.
His manner seeped in to all aspects of the show’s production and many who worked behind the scenes on The Sopranos were anxious to avoid getting on his nerves. And in the instances where Chase happened to be ticked off at some bad news?
Chase’s assistant revealed that she had a personal "five-minute rule" whenever she had to give the showrunner some unfortunate news to afford the showrunner time for his loud temper tantrums, which often included swearing, yelling, and even kicking his desk.
8 Robert Iler Was Arrested for Robbery
A.J. Soprano’s character arc over the course of The Sopranos included flirting with the crime lifestyle of his father. And as the case of Robert Iler would show, art does appear to imitate life at times.
Back in 2001, as season 3 was airing, the 16-year-old Robert Iler was arrested and charged in New York for robbery along with 3 other teenagers. According to Iler’s two victims, he and his three friends ganged up on them in the street and demanded the two give them money.
Iler later plead not guilty and HBO offered no comment on the incident. The actor, who was facing up to 15 years for his charges, eventually escaped having to serve any prison time by agreeing to a plea deal.
7 David Chase Had His Own Mother Issues
Tony Soprano’s troubled ties to his mother were one of the character’s primary issues through the HBO series. Even after Livia Soprano’s death in season 3, Tony Soprano grappled with his tumultuous relationship with his mother during his therapy sessions until the very end of the show.
Tony and Livia’s complex, painful relationship actually had roots in reality. As Chase would admit years after The Sopranos finished, Tony’s relationship to Livia was practically “autobiographical”.
The showrunner formed his protagonist's mother issues after his own broken relationship to his mom in real life. Tony’s stint in therapy was even based off of Chase’s own experiences in his therapist’s office.
Chase’s choice to impart some of his own life experiences into Tony Soprano no doubt made the character all the more believable.
6 Anthony Borgese Arranged a Real-Life Mob Beating
Between his roles in The Sopranos, Goodfellas, and television shows like Person of Interest, actor Tony Darrow (whose real name is Anthony Borgese) has played his fair share of mobsters on screen. But few expected his relationship to the mob to cross over into real life.
In 2011, Borgese was found with ties to the mob when he was caught having planned an arranged beating that left one man seriously injured. Borgese was accused of going to members of the Gambino family to help him collect $5,000 in debt from a man who had not paid. The mobsters agreed to the job and broke the jaw and ribs of their victim.
The actor plead guilty once he was charged and managed to avoid prison time with a plea deal that stipulated he had to make a PSA film about the dangers of dealing with organized crime members.
5 Lorraine Bracco Suffered from Depression During Filming
One aspect of The Sopranos that differentiated it from every other television drama was its honest depiction of depression and treatment through therapy through Tony Soprano and his therapist Dr. Melfi. Many continue to applaud The Sopranos to this day for daring to have a mob boss protagonist struggle with mental health issues.
Sadly, life is full of bitter ironies, as actress Lorraine Bracco might say when discussing her early days playing Melfi. While she devoted her work to depicting a therapist treating Tony Soprano, Bracco had her own personal battle with clinical depression behind the scenes during the filming of season 1.
However, as Bracco continued with treatment and The Sopranos became successful (ensuring the actress steady employment), Bracco began to enjoy peace of mind. Bracco has said her own experiences with depression and therapy helped immensely with forming her character Dr. Melfi.
4 Louis Gross Was Caught Using Counterfeit Cash
“Fugazi” is a term often used by characters in mob movies to describe something valuable that is actually fake. It turns out actor Louis Gross has more experience with this term than simply acting as a mobster in The Sopranos.
Gross, who played Tony Soprano’s bodyguard Perry Annunziata towards the end of The Sopranos, was caught in 2013 trying to use counterfeit $100 bills for a purchase in New York City. The actor allegedly tried to throw the money on the street to ditch the evidence when he was caught.
The charge was a felony and Gross faced up to 15 years in prison for his crime. Though he originally denied that the money was counterfeit, the actor avoided prison time by pleading guilty.
3 Jamie-Lynn Sigler Battled Bulimia For Years
In 2005, actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler went public with a secret that had been weighing on her throughout her years playing Meadow Soprano. Sigler admitted that she had been struggling with an eating disorder since she had first taken on the role as Tony Soprano’s daughter back in the late 90s.
When the pilot premiered, few would have believed that Sigler was close to taking her own life due to her struggles with bulimia. Fortunately, Sigler was able to overcome her eating disorder – all with the help producers from The Sopranos. Some working on the HBO drama were concerned with Sigler’s weight and met with the actress to see if they could help.
Sigler now considers their intervention as a major reason she was able to get out of her rut.
2 Lillo Brancato Jr. Was Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison
Lillo Brancato Jr. was once considered a promising young actor on the cusp of a highly successful career. In addition to his role as young mobster Matthew Bevilaqua on The Sopranos, he also starred as the young lead in Robert De Niro’s directorial debut A Bronx Tale.
But Brancato’s career trajectory veered off course in 2005 when he was involved in a burglary that left one police officer dead. Brancato and a friend attempted to break in a house when they were caught by an off-duty police officer. Brancato’s friend killed the officer with his own weapon.
Brancato himself was unarmed during the incident, but he was charged with felony murder and faced up to 15 years in prison. In 2009, a Supreme Court Judge sentenced him to 10 years.
The actor was released late in 2013 for good behavior.
1 James Gandolfini Once Went Missing From Set for 4 Days
James Gandolfini was known for many things, but amongst his friends, one of his most redeeming traits was his humility, kindness, and dedication to his work. But with the high-profile attention surrounding The Sopranos, the actor was suddenly thrust into the intense public spotlight. The public scrutiny combined with the emotional weight that came with playing Tony Soprano was a taxing burden.
At one point during filming The Sopranos in 2002, it all became too much for the actor. Gandolfini did not show up for scheduled shoots and went off the grid for four days, sending producers into a blind panic.
The incident ended when the production offices got a random call from the actor in Brooklyn requesting a car to come pick him up. Though Gandolfini was at times a difficult man, many from The Sopranos insist he was the best co-worker one could have on set.
Which of these dark secrets were most shocking for you? Let us know in the comment section!