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Death by Script

John Fiore of The Sopranos
A humiliating end befell John Fiore's "Sopranos" character: A heart attack on the commode. He's still bitter. "At first," he said, "I thought it was a really bad joke." (C.J. Gunther for The Washington Post)

As we reacquaint ourselves with Tony Soprano, his wife, kids and glorious assortment of sociopathic henchmen, let us spare a thought for the dearly departed, those who in previous seasons were shot, knifed or hacked into little bits by a meat saw. Let us remember not just these criminals and semi-innocent bystanders, but the actors who played them. For they learned the hard and curious truth about life in "The Sopranos" -- it is eerily similar to life in the mob.

Yes, the specter of a violent, humiliating end haunts nearly everyone in the cast, and the fates of these actors are entirely in the hands of Chase, the show's own capo di capo. And though the dying is pretend, exiting "The Sopranos" hurts plenty. Gone is the money, the prestige and the day-to-day joy of performing on one of the most celebrated shows in television history.

So a peculiar form of paranoia is rife on the set, former and current cast members say. It's the sort of fear you'd expect to find in the Gambino crime family, not show business.

"Everyone there is always wondering, 'Am I'm going to be killed next?' " says David Proval, who played Richie Aprile, the yoga-practicing ex-con who starred in the second season. Proval found the anxiety a little exhausting, and says it shadows even actors in Tony Soprano's inner circle.

"I remember once we were standing around on the set, and we saw this prop guy standing on top of a truck," Proval says. "Now, the prop guys, they often would find out who would be killed before anyone else, because they have to build things to get ready to shoot those scenes. Well, I was standing with Michael Imperioli," who plays Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's trigger-happy nephew, "and this guy looked at us and he sort of pretended to slit his throat with his hand. You know, the 'You're dead' sign. And Michael screamed, 'Hey, what did I do?' And the funny part was, he meant it. He was really nervous."

You can plead with Chase for your life, as many actors have, but it won't help. From the beginning, "The Sopranos" has remained mercilessly true to the underworld it so faithfully chronicles, a realm where death is as common as good cannoli.

Other shows have killed off long-running characters -- in the television business, it's known as "burning your furniture," which hints at how startling these fatalities are, and how rare.

But "The Sopranos" rubs out familiar faces every season. And befitting Chase's donlike power, they are dispatched in whatever way he sees fit.

Patti D'Arbanville, who played a gangster caught in the middle of an upper-management feud, originally was shot in the heart, through a phone book. After the scene had been filmed, Chase saw D'Arbanville at a Christmas party in a low-cut, brown velvet gown, and suddenly he had a different idea.

"After the party, he called and said he'd like me to be whacked naked," D'Arbanville says. At first she was wary, but he assured her it would be done tastefully. You know, tasteful by the standards of gangland slayings in the buff. Soon she was screaming in her birthday suit, chased by a goombah with a gun.

"Crawling around naked in front of a crew of people at the age of 53? Hello?" she shouts. "That was scarier than anything."

The Man, His Mother

David Chase, who is 60, doesn't look like a homicidal maniac. On a recent morning, he is sitting in the writers' room of "The Sopranos," little more than a handful of black leather chairs around a table, with a view of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. He's dressed casually and seems harried. Maybe it's the workload. He's still shooting and editing the upcoming episodes, and once these 12 are finished, he has the show's final mini-season -- eight episodes to be filmed in the coming months -- to sweat. But you sense that even in the best of times he's serious to the point of morose. He laughs just once in the next 40 minutes, recalling one of the more profane mutterings of Junior Soprano, Tony's curmudgeonly uncle.

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