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Death by Script
Reached on the phone, where she's filming the sitcom "Joey," de Matteo remembers her death sentence moment. Chase told her while sitting on the curb outside a hospital where the show was being filmed. She saw it coming, but it still hurt.
"Obviously, it crossed my mind because I was talking to the FBI, but I wasn't giving up anything of substance to the FBI," she says on the phone. "It's like getting cancer," she says of her on-screen death. "You know it could happen, but you never think it will happen to you."
The trauma for all these actors isn't just that their characters get whacked -- it's that their careers take a beating, too. Pre-"Sopranos," most were unknowns from the New York theater world, so they leave with higher profiles and, in most cases, other work. But it's all a comedown. It's hard to watch an actress as good as de Matteo waste her talent in a stinker like "Joey." And she's a success story.
Once marked for liquidation, actors get the sort of condolence back-pats and so-long hugs usually reserved for inmates headed to the gallows. Then it's dinnertime. Everyone who's killed on the show gets a farewell feast at a restaurant in Little Italy called Il Cortile. They're raucous affairs, but there's an undercurrent of bummer, too.
"You know you won't see these people around anymore, and you rarely see people you don't work with," says Steve Van Zandt, who plays Tony's consigliere, Silvio Dante. "Everyone in the cast realized a long time ago -- anything can happen. You do just as good as you can because you may not be around tomorrow."
From a business standpoint, getting cement-shoed off the show is never exactly a surprise. All the contracts are slightly different, but a deal that covers, say, seven episodes typically doesn't ensure seven episodes of work. Chase can kill you after two, or whenever he chooses. (And depending on the skill of your agent, you might not be paid for the episodes you don't work.) The most a doomed actor can hope for is a big, bloody sendoff.
"I feel like I was lucky because I got shot and I got a wake," says Jason Cerbone, who played Jackie Aprile Jr., a slick young mook who is slain after robbing a mobbed-up poker game. "A lot of guys just get dumped in the ocean."
The wake scene, it turned out, was the creepiest day of Cerbone's life. Lying still in a coffin for a whole day, in a real funeral home -- that was far worse than getting capped. He's never watched that wake scene and vows he never will. But he did see a photo of the moment, by accident. The day after the episode aired, a New York tabloid printed a photo of Jackie Jr., eyes closed, supine in a casket, on its cover. "That morning, I appeared on the 'Today' show, and when I got out of this limo, a fan shoved the newspaper in my face and asked me to sign it. There I am, dead. I was like, 'Whoa.' "
In a single, miraculous instance, a whacked actor did return from the Great Beyond. Dan Grimaldi, who plays Patsy Parisi, came back to the show as the identical twin of Philly Parisi, who was killed in the second season at the behest of Tony Soprano. Chase knew it was a hokey conceit but couldn't resist -- Grimaldi was just that good. A casting agent called the actor about two months after he'd been killed.
"I was going on auditions, pounding the pavement," Grimaldi says of his 60-day purgatory. "Then I got a call at home saying I'd play my twin brother. It was like a second life."
Barring pseudo-reincarnation, there is the small chance of returning for cameos as a ghost. Pastore has been back a few times, once to startle Tony Soprano -- his killer -- by appearing in the reflection of a mirror. For Pastore, that isn't nearly enough.
"I should have haunted him more," says Pastore, who has a show on Sirius radio these days, "because when Tony killed me, he killed his best friend."
For the late lamented, a return trip for some posthumous guilt-tripping is both exhilarating and depressing. Al Sapienza, who played Mikey Palmice, the dapper thug who helps Junior scheme against Tony in Season 1, went back to deliver a single line in a dream sequence a few years after he was pumped full of lead in a muddy gulch. Everything had changed. When "The Sopranos" debuted, nearly all the actors were unknowns and struggling.
"Now, they're rich and they can't walk into a CVS without 50 people attacking them," Sapienza says, sighing. "And I'm dead. I'm gone."
Sapienza has worked steadily since he took those 22 bullets in a New Jersey forest, but like a lot of the "Sopranos" dead, life after the show has been busy but duller than life during. Just as bad, his characters keep meeting a grisly end.
"I was on '24,' and I was tortured to death with a power drill," Sapienza says. "People must hate me."