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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)

"I think that was the first time that word was used on American television," he says, referring to a phrase that can't even be hinted at here. "We were kind of proud of that."

This office is in Silvercup Studios, a production house that takes up an entire block in Long Island City, the part of Queens that is just over the East River. Nearly all of the interior filming for "The Sopranos" happens on the first floor. An assistant will later offer a tour of the premises.

Everything is there -- the restaurant Vesuvio, the office of Tony's psychiatrist, upstairs at the Bada Bing and, of course, chez Soprano, which is so detailed it feels like you could move in if someone turned on the water. It's a jarring spectacle, all these fake and semi-assembled rooms -- there is no filming today -- because the rooms seem utterly authentic on the screen. In reality, you enter the Sopranos' house not by riding up a driveway in Jersey but by walking down a street in Queens and punching the security code into a door catty-corner from a deli.

Chase is the god of this little universe. A veteran of network television, he wrote in the '70s for "The Rockford Files" and later for "Northern Exposure," among others. "The Sopranos" was his baby from the start. It was born out of his experience in psychotherapy, where he grappled with issues surrounding his joyless mother. The idea was to create a seriocomic mob drama in which the boss copes with the headaches of organized crime and a mother so coldblooded and nuts that she plots to clip her son. (Chase's mother was never filicidal, it should be noted, but her negativity is immortalized in some of Livia Soprano's finest moments.) Reviews for the pilot and first season, in 1999, were rhapsodic.

"When HBO bought the show, it never occurred to me that it would go into a second season," Chase says. "The odds of any show succeeding are incredibly slim. This was all a surprise to us."

Part of the surprise was realizing that the public would embrace a show that ignored so many of the hoariest conventions of television. Such as: Don't kill main characters.

"When we killed Big Pussy the second season, everyone was shocked. I had friends say, 'You can't do that! You've got no show without that guy.' " Despite all the fictional killing he's done over the years, Chase says he's never thought of himself as TV's answer to John Gotti. Which seems weird, given all the actors he's heard beg for their professional lives.

"Well, most of them don't beg," he says. "Most of them are pretty stoic about it. And I don't feel guilt. I feel sympathy because these people have to go look for other work. But we're all storytellers, and most of the actors understand we're making a mob show. People in the mob get killed."

The Killings Ain't Easy

What Chase has heard from actors is lots of special requests: Don't let me die a snitch; massacre me; spare me so I can spin off the character for another show. The campaigning never works. On the other hand, there are characters he considered killing and then didn't.

"The Angel of Death has paused over certain people's heads, but moved on," he says with a mischievous grin. "Like Junior," who conspires against Tony in Season 1. "Tony probably should have killed him, because he was a threat, but nobody was up for that, because Dominic [Chianese] is just so good, and those scenes with Tony are everybody's favorite. Plus, the people we consult with who actually know this world, they said it was plausible to give the guy a pass because he was family."

Though Chase doesn't fret about most of his murders, some have been pretty unpleasant, on a personal level. Telling Vinny Pastore, who played "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, that he'd be shot by his crew was no fun, and it cast a pall over the set for a while. Harder still was Drea de Matteo, who played Adriana, Christopher's girlfriend.

"That was really hard. She had one line in the pilot, and then when we decided to give Christopher a girlfriend, she auditioned for that role and got it. So we watched her go from unknown to star," Chase said.


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