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Death by Script
'Sopranos' Actors Find That Once the Boss Decides to Ice Their Characters, They're Toast

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

NEW YORK

John Fiore is still pretty miffed about getting killed. The day he learned of his imminent death started with an answering-machine message from David Chase, the executive producer and creator of "The Sopranos." "Can you give me a call?" was all he said, but Chase had never called before. Something was up.

Something good, Fiore assumed. At the time, he had a small, recurring role as a mobster named Gigi Cestone, and he'd been getting more lines and better scenes. Plus, his character would soon be bumped up from soldier to captain in the Soprano family, so why not a promotion in the cast? Fiore was convinced that Chase would offer a contract for a few episodes, if not a whole season.

But when the two spoke on the phone, Chase sounded somber. "This is a call," he said, "that I hate to make."

In an instant, Fiore knew he was a dead man. Well, his character was a dead man, and that meant his "Sopranos" gig was over, which for an actor is like getting whacked for real. Fiore did what anyone confronting a killer would do -- he begged for his life.

"I said no, no, no, you do not have to do this," he recalls. "You do not have to do this. You are the writer, you are the producer. This is [bunk]. Kill somebody else!"

Chase was apologetic but unmoved. Nothing personal. It's just what the story demands.

Easing into the acceptance stage of death, Fiore asked how he would expire, and suddenly the news went from merely awful to absurdly awful. "At first," he says, "I thought it was a really bad joke."

It wasn't. Chase wanted Fiore's character to die of a heart attack on the toilet. On the toilet. No machine-gun ambush, like Sonny Corleone, murdered at a tollbooth in "The Godfather." No, for Gigi Cestone, it'd be a coronary on the throne. Does it get more humiliating?

"It was highly disagreeable to me," says Fiore, who sounds surprisingly bitter, five years after leaving the show. "But David said, 'No, this is memorable, this is different.' " So Fiore sucked it up, died on cue, and on his last day, the cast and crew handed him a signed toilet seat, which he didn't find very amusing. A year or so later, he ran into Chase, who asked if the "Sopranos" stint had helped his career.

"I said, actually, it didn't help me at all. And my kids have to listen to people in school say, 'Ha ha, your dad died on the toilet.' "

Who's Next?

After a nearly two-year hiatus, "The Sopranos" returns at last to HBO on Sunday night, with the opening of Season 6 and a new batch of darkly comic tales about the most treacherous and neurotic mob family in northern New Jersey. Let the back-stabbing commence.

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.

"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.

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.

The End

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."

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