DATE March 9, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Chase, creator and executive producer of "The
Sopranos," talks about the show and the death of one of its cast
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
The HBO drama series "The Sopranos" just started its third season last Sunday.
David Chase is the creator and executive producer of the show, a Mafia story
that's as much about stress as it is about violence. It follows Tony Soprano,
a middle-aged mobster in suburban New Jersey who has constant difficulties
ruling the Mafia family he heads and relating to his own wife and two teen-age
children. His panic attacks have led him into therapy, although he doesn't
really believe in its effectiveness. In this scene, it's late at night and
Tony is alone getting plastered in the kitchen when his daughter Meadow walks
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
JAMIE LYNN SIGLER ("Meadow"): Why are you sitting in the dark?
Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI ("Tony Soprano"): I don't know. Like the dark. Sit.
SIGLER: I got to go online.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Oh, come on. Sit for a minute. Come on. So what's going
SIGLER: With what?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Whatever. I don't know. What's going on?
SIGLER: I just told you, a chat room. Is that it?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: You know I love you, right, Mead?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: No, don't Dad me. Come on. I want to know. Do you know
that I love you?
SIGLER: Yes, I know that you love me.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Because your mother doesn't think I love you enough.
SIGLER: And you listen to her?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Everything I do and everything I've done and everything I
will do, it's all for you and your mother, you know that.
SIGLER: I think you should go to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I mean, I tell people you're like your mother, but you're all
me. Nothing gets by you and I know you think I'm a hypocrite.
SIGLER: I'm going to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Yeah. All right, go ahead.
SIGLER: Dad, why don't you go to bed?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I'm going to finish my drink.
SIGLER: OK. Good night.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Good night, baby.
SIGLER: Sometimes we're all hypocrites.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Good night, baby.
SIGLER: Good night.
(End of soundbite)
BOGAEV: David Chase wrote and directed many episodes of "The Sopranos."
Terry spoke with him last summer.
It seems to me that "The Sopranos" started off with a little bit more comedy
and that it's become just more tragic for the characters as time goes on.
Mr. DAVID CHASE (Creator and Executive Producer, "The Sopranos"): I know,
people have said that, and I didn't realize that. I don't see it that way.
So it's pretty difficult...
GROSS: You don't see it that way?
Mr. CHASE: I don't.
Mr. CHASE: The last show we did a sudden U-turn, if that's what people are
GROSS: The last show...
Mr. CHASE: The last show.
GROSS: ...of the second season?
Mr. CHASE: Mm-hmm, the last show of the second season, in that there was a
plan--we had a plan for Tony's emotional growth, or lack of growth,
throughout the first season. The idea of carryover from the first season was
OK based on what we seemed to remember about therapy or know about therapy if
you compress it all. Of course, it takes much longer than this. You get to
a point you're, `My parents did this, my parents did that,' you're slamming
your parents. The shrink is saying, `Oh, those parents you have, what do you
expect? You can't be any better than you are.' And you go through that, and
then you get to a point where it's OK, so your parents were your parents; now
what are you going to do? Now you're gonna--as a shrink once said to me,
`What would you like to do? Should we have an auto-da-fe and burn the old
lady at the stake? She's your mother; what can you do about it?'
So we got to that point in the show and the second season was to be--was
about, actually, Tony realizing that--people kept saying to him he was his own
worst enemy, that the seeds of his own destruction and his problems were
internal, as they are with all of us, really, in the end; you're here and
there's no excuses for who you are.
The kind of a U-turn that we took rather suddenly was as we were doing show
13, I suddenly--something in me kind of snapped and I got tired of some of the
moralizing that some of the characters were doing, and I began to feel that
Tony Soprano is a gangster, he is a mobster, end of story. And that's enough
said about him as regards to his, quote, unquote, "internal development" for
now. And so in the end, the feeling that I got from the last show was
that--and I thought it was also necessary to remind the audience this is a
mobster, this is a gangster. You may think he's lovable. He's also a very,
very scary man.
GROSS: Let's hear a scene between Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr. Malfy. And
this gets a little bit to what you're talking about. This conversation isn't
about Tony's mother, it's about who Tony is and the kind of problems he's
responsible for, of his own volition, you know, in the work that he's doing
and the crimes that he's committing. So here's Tony with Dr. Malfy.
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
"Dr. MALFY": Do you know why a shark keeps moving?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: They got to keep moving or they'll die. They can't breathe
"Dr. MALFY: There's a psychological condition known as elixathimya, common
in certain personalities. The individual craves almost ceaseless action which
enables them to avoid acknowledging the abhorrent things they do.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Abhorrent? What certain personalities?
"Dr. MALFY": Anti-social personalities.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I shoot your brother-in-law, ran over a guy, no reason; guy's
paralyzed. Has to piss into a catheter tube. What happens when these
anti-social personalities aren't distracted from the horrible (censored) they
"Dr. MALFY": They have time to think about their behavior, how what they
do affects other people, about feelings of emptiness and self-loathing
haunting them since childhood, and they crash.
GROSS: The scene from "The Sopranos." My guest is the creator and executive
producer of the series, David Chase.
Where does that scene take us in the development of Tony?
Mr. CHASE: Well, it was intended to be building toward some sort of
conclusion or some kind of self-awareness on Tony's part that he--that you can
no longer blame your parents, your mother. You cannot go through your life or
through therapy just leaning on that crutch all the time, that after a while,
it's you; the problem is you.
It's strange, as you were playing that scene, I became--the scene with Malfy,
I felt very sorry for Tony Soprano. I actually got choked up. I sort of
heard it for the first time, because she's not only saying to him, `This is
what you do to other people,' but she's saying to him that underneath that,
there's this just little scared person who just hates himself. And I felt
compassion for the guy.
GROSS: Well, you're so lucky to have found James Gandolfini, someone who has
such an interesting face to watch and his face is kind of mercurial. I mean,
although I'm sure he's trying not to betray what he's thinking, you can see
what he's thinking on his face. And sometimes he looks very weak and
vulnerable and sometimes he's incredibly cold-blooded looking. How did you
Mr. CHASE: Well...
GROSS: Oh, and let me ask you one thing, too. In terms of looking for him,
you've cast at the center of the series someone who is a very charismatic
actor, but he's not a leading man kind of looking actor. He's got a pot
belly, receding hairline, pudgy face. It's not Al Pacino.
Mr. CHASE: No. It--I always go for the actor. If the actor who came in to
read for this part had been Cary Grant and it had worked, I probably would
have said, `Fine, let's do that.' But we didn't. What really we were blessed
enough to have happen is that James Gandolfini came through our door, and I
honestly mean this. This--you know, without Jim Gandolfini, there is no
Sopranos. There's no Tony Soprano. He is so integral to, I think, a lot of
the--people always ask me, `What do you attribute--why do people like the show
so much? Why the furor?' And it's because of him. That's why the whole
thing, I think, is so identifiable to so many people, because he just is so
human and people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him,
despite the heinous things he's doing on screen.
GROSS: There's something very `average guy looking' about him.
Mr. CHASE: And how it happened--oh, it's more than that. I think--I don't
think he is that average. I think he is a very, very
sensitive--hypersensitive man. And I think he reflects his environment in a
very, very rarified way. And he comes off as the `regular Joe,' you know.
But that's--I think what's going on there is you have a very, very extremely
emotional person and sensitive person, and that's what Tony Soprano has become
as a result of him.
BOGAEV: "Sopranos" creator and executive producer David Chase, speaking with
Terry Gross last year. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: We're back with an interview Terry Gross recorded last year with
David Chase, the creator and the executive producer of the HBO series "The
GROSS: Writing "The Sopranos" for HBO means that you can say things and show
things that you couldn't do on broadcast TV. So here are some of the things
you've done that you wouldn't be able to do on broadcast TV: using a lot of
expletives in the dialogue; you show a couple having sex, front to back with
the guy holding a gun to the woman's head because the gun turns him on;
disposing of a body by putting it through a meat grinder, although you don't
really see anything explicit during that scene. Tony has had food poisoning
and we hear all the sounds that he makes in the toilet. I've never quite
heard that on TV. Let's start with the toilet. Why be that graphic with the
Mr. CHASE: Just seemed real. I just felt that I--I mean, I've had food
poisoning and that's the reality of it. And we do try to do things--we try to
make things real as much as possible. The reason for doing the food
poisoning--that was not an idle choice, like, `Oh, wouldn't it be funny to
have Tony have food poisoning?' That came out of a need that I felt and I
hope most of the writers agree with me--I think they did--I just didn't
want--in other words, Pus--OK, Pussy's a rat. How's Tony going to find out?
I really just didn't want to do some kind of procedural thing in which Tony
gets some little clue and then he sends somebody to find out and then people
are trying to get the case on him and they're reporting back to him and all
that exposition. It just--it bored me terribly. And I just wanted Tony to
know on some kind of subconscious level. And the food poisoning--I mean, I
guess you could say maybe the food poisoning was caused by--if you believe in
the mind-body connection, by this overwhelming sense that he had that his
friend had betrayed him. You could probably make--you could make that case, I
suppose, that that's where it came out, was in his stomach. That's where his
body broke down. And out of that delirium came this feeling, this dream that
seemed to click very solidly for him that, in fact, his friend had betrayed
him. Of course, he then did go and get the information; he found Pussy's
But we didn't have a lot of people talking about it and trying to prove it or
anything like that. And so once we made that decision, then--we always just
try to do realism. It was not a--the toilet sounds were not a desire to--I
mean, they are funny. Frankly, I laugh at that stuff. But it was not--that's
not the reason we did it.
GROSS: Now therapy is so at the center of the series. You know, Tony is in
therapy. Did--were you in therapy a lot? Did you...
Mr. CHASE: A lot, yes.
GROSS: Was your mother a lot of subject of conversation?
Mr. CHASE: My mother was a fair amount of it, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. You said that she was really a worrier, you know, and she
Mr. CHASE: She was a very big worrier.
GROSS: Yeah. Did--was that contagious? Like if she was worried that if you
did something you'd be hurt, did you worry that if you did it you'd be hurt,
too? I mean, did it make you a more kind of cautious or inhibited person?
Mr. CHASE: Hmm, I never thought about that. After all those years of
therapy, I never thought about that. But I will say that I was a very scaredy
kid when I was little. I was scared of--I was afraid of a lot of things. And
my cousins knew this, and so they--like my cousin Johnny would--I was about
seven, and he was, like--I don't know, 10; and he would say, `Come on, I want
to show you something in the garage.' They had this creepy old garage. And
I'd say, `No, you're gonna lock me in there.' And he'd say, `I'm not going
to. Come here, you got to come in here and look at this thing.' I'd go into
the garage and they'd shut the door and lock me in there. And they could do
this, and they were always telling me there were copperheads in the brook when
we were--they could do this because they know that I freaked out easily. And
I guess that was one of my mother's traits; she also did freak out easily.
She was a worrier.
And then I think as a teen-ager later, I became sort of a rebellious,
defiant--you know, fast cars and drinking and all that stuff. And I think
that was, on my part, an attempt to lose that scaredy kid and to put that--not
be that anymore.
GROSS: Did it work?
Mr. CHASE: Yeah, I think so.
GROSS: Did you need to leave home to do that?
Mr. CHASE: No, I didn't have to leave home. I was very fortunate in that I
fell in with a group of friends who my mother--my parents thought were really
horrible people and didn't want me hanging around with. And as a matter of
fact, this group of people--there was a lot--there's been several deaths from
heroin, there's been--somebody became like a tramp and was run over by a
railroad car. I have to say that, of the circle of friends of mine from high
school there's been a lot of tragedy and trouble. In my case, I always feel
that those friends showed me another way of being, which is not be terrified
all the time. It didn't work out well for some of them; but in my case, I did
not perish with it. And they also, in a strange way, introduced me to show
business. A lot of them were rock 'n' roll musicians, and we had a band
and--a couple of different bands. And so they were very important in my
GROSS: So I'm wondering if those friends who, you know, drove fast cars and
did drugs and were much tougher than you were and kind of introduced you into
a new kind of life, if you were able to model anything in "The Sopranos" on
them, any characters on them or incidents or just a kind of way of living in
the world--of not being afraid.
Mr. CHASE: I never thought--again, I never thought about this consciously,
but as I'm speaking, of course, the conclusions are inescapable that the
"Soprano" crew is a very tight bunch of guys who live life on the edge. My
friends and I in New Jersey had no--we were not in any way junior mafiosi or
anything like that. We didn't gamble or play the numbers. I mean, there were
people in the town who did that stuff, but we were--in context, we were a
group of kids in high school who later, probably a year later, after the
Mr. CHASE: ...became, I guess you'd say, the first hippies in that town. We
crossed over the line from the James Dean thing into The Rolling Stones thing.
That's just the time at which we lived. And so we were kind of involved with
The Stones and The Beatles before most of the other kids in our town were. We
gravitated to that right away. Kids at that time were saying, `Oh, look at
those faggots with long hair,' and we just immediately said, `Wow, that looks
cool. Let's do that.'
GROSS: Did you...
Mr. CHASE: We were always looking for--I don't know how you'd express
it--just always looking for, I guess, a kind of an outlaw identity.
GROSS: When you were growing up, were there movies that really scared the
heck out of you, but you couldn't take your eyes off of them?
Mr. CHASE: Oh, of course. Yes. That's the kind of movies I always
gr--that's the kind of movies I always liked. As I said, I was a scaredy kid
and yet, horror movies and scary movies, to me, were--I could not get enough
of them. And I think I found things to be terrified of in movies that other
people didn't. I--the--I think a pretty big influence on me was this William
Wellman movie, the "Public Enemy," which I saw a million dollar movie when I
was probably eight or nine. And they would play a movie all week long. And
in it, the gangster, Tom Powers, is--you know, it's the one where Cagney's
finally--after this life of crime. Actually, the mother is very important in
that movie, too. He's got this sort of sweet, little old Irish mother.
But after this horrible life of crime and smashing the grapefruit into that
woman's face and everything else that he did, he gets shot and he says, `I
ain't so tough,' and he collapses on his knees. But at the end of the movie,
he's in a hospital and he's--and the rival gangs call his mother's house,
says, `We're sending Tom home.' And his brother runs up the stairs, says,
`Ma, Ma, they're bringing Tom home.' And she puts on his "I'm Forever Blowing
Bubbles," record and it's playing and she's making the bed and she's sort
of singing and feathers are going every place. She's happy and his brother's
all excited he's coming home. And then there's a knock on the door and the
brother opens the door and you see Cagney, he's wrapped up in a blanket with
his head all in bandages from the hospital, tied up like a mummy and he's dead
and his dead eyes and he just kind of topples toward camera right into the
lens. That's the end of the movie. This was the most frightening thing I'd
ever seen. I was scared about this for a month. I could not get that out of
GROSS: What was it that was so scary?
Mr. CHASE: I don't know to this day. Just the idea--those people's
expectations in the house. It's actually making me kind of sad. I don't
know, their expectations of what was going to happen and what really did
happen, that they were so happy that he was coming home and he was dead in
such a horrible way and how he wasted his life.
GROSS: Well, David Chase, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for
talking with us.
Mr. CHASE: Thank you very much. It's been really great.
BOGAEV: David Chase is the creator and executive producer of the HBO series
"The Sopranos." We'll have more on "The Sopranos" in the second half of the
show. The last episode of "The Sopranos" ended with Tony watching the end of
the Jimmy Cagney film "Public Enemy." Here's that scene. I'm Barbara Bogaev,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
(Soundbite of "Public Enemy")
Unidentified Man: Ma, they're bringing Tom home.
Unidentified Woman: They are? When?
Unidentified Man: Right now. He's on his way.
Unidentified Woman: Oh, it's wonderful. I'll get his room ready. I knew my
baby would come home. (Singing) Da, da, da, da, da di, da, da.
(Soundbite of car engine)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Da, da, da, da, di, da, di. Da, da, da, da,
di, da, di.
(Soundbite of music; sniffling)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Imperioli talks about his role on "The
Sopranos" and other movies he's been in
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
Unidentified Man #1: Yo, Christopher, what's up?
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, what's up, man?
(Soundbite of gunfire)
BOGAEV: During the last season of "The Sopranos," Tony's nephew and protege
Christopher Moltisanti was shot several times by two young guys who worked
for him. He fully recovered but on this weekend's episode, Christopher will
have another life-altering experience. Michael Imperioli plays the role of
Christopher. Imperioli has appeared in over 30 films including "GoodFellas,"
"Jungle Fever," "Clockers," "Household Saints" and "I Shot Andy Warhol." He
co-wrote and executive produced Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam." When Terry spoke
with Imperioli last year, she asked him to describe his character on "The
Mr. MICHAEL IMPERIOLI (Actor, "The Sopranos"): I'm kind of a younger, more
hot-headed, impulsive, young mobster who wants to be made into the Mafia,
which means officially become a member and go through the oath and ritual
which assures you a lifetime place in that family. And often, my attempts to
do that kind of backfire and cause me to get into more trouble. But he's a
hard worker and I think he has a good heart.
TERRY GROSS: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
Mr. IMPERIOLI: I grew up in a mostly Italian neighborhood in Mt. Vernon,
which is right on the border of the Bronx in New York.
GROSS: Were there guys who were rumored to be in the Mafia or guys who you
knew for sure were?
Mr. IMPERIOLI: There were guys who were connected to them but not guys who,
I would say, like were made guys who were part of the family that lived in my
immediate neighborhood, no.
GROSS: And what was your attitude toward them? Were they people you looked
up to or people you wanted to stay away from?
Mr. IMPERIOLI: Well, you know, when we were kids growing up, "The Godfather"
was like a hero. You know, that was hero worship to us. "The Godfather" kind
of made us proud to be Italian. Because, I mean, we didn't look at those
characters as just violent criminals, you know, we looked at them with
appreciation because of their sense of being empowered in American society and
being able to kind of take the law into their own hands. And we also were
attracted to these bonds of loyalty and blood--you know, family, that version
of blood--and tradition. But we actually had a sense of pride about those
characters. And I think that's why a lot of people still, you know, I guess,
look up to that movie. They feel something for these characters. They don't
feel a revulsion for these characters. They really feel like a respect and an
admiration for just the way they treated each other and the way they looked at
what their lives are about.
GROSS: Now before "The Sopranos," you had a small part in "GoodFellas"...
Mr. IMPERIOLI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...one of Martin Scorsese's movies about the mob, about people at the
lower echelon. Describe your part in "GoodFellas."
Mr. IMPERIOLI: I played a kid who worked in the social club where these wise
guys hung out. And, you know, when young kids do that kind of job, they do
anything from like sweeping up to, you know, going to make food runs or make
coffee or bring coffee. Or in the movie, specifically, you see me serving
drinks at a card game. I might go buy them a sandwich if they wanted it or
make them a sandwich for their card game or, you know, clean up when they're
done and do whatever they need. And kind of like a gopher. So that was my
character. His name was `Spider.'
GROSS: And you got shot.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: Yeah. Well, that was based on a true story apparently, from
what I understand. That there was a character who was this kid and one of the
guys kind of was getting a little hot under the collar and was fooling around
and wanted me to, like in an old western, you know, move a little quicker. So
he was shooting the ground, he wound up shooting me in the foot. And then in
the next scene, he's kind of bothering me and he's kind of doing the same
thing and I have this huge bandage on my foot and I get upset and kind of tell
him to go, you know, blah, blah, blah. And he gets really upset and winds up
killing me. But it happens right in the middle of the movie and I think there
was no reason really for my character to die and it kind of really
showed--that was Joe Pesci who shot my character in the movie. And it was a
point in the movie where it really kind of shows he's taken a turn into like,
I guess, depravity where it's not about business anymore. He's just kind of
becoming psychotic, where he's just kind killing whoever he wants to for
GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of that scene.
(Soundbite of "GoodFellas")
Mr. JOE PESCI (As Tommy): Even though you got that, you can good dancer,
huh? Give us a little--give us a couple of (censored) steps here, Spider.
(Censored) for you. Tell the truth. You're looking for sympathy. Is that
Mr. IMPERIOLI (As Spider): Why don't you go (censored) yourself, Tommy?
Unidentified Actor #1: Oh.
Unidentified Actor #2: Oh.
Unidentified Actor #3: Oh.
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): Oh. Yeah, right. I couldn't believe what I
just heard. Hey, Spider, here, here, this is for you. Atta boy. I got
respect for this kid. He's got a lot of (censored) balls. Good for you.
Don't take no (censored) off nobody. He shoots him in the foot, he tells him
to go (censored) himself.
Unidentified Man #3: You going to let him get away with that? You going to
let the punk get away with that? What's the matter with you? What's the
world coming to?
(Soundbite of gunshots)
Mr. PESCI (As Tommy): ...what the (censored) the world is coming to. How do
you like that?
GROSS: When the Joe Pesci character's really going over the edge as he's
shooting at you, did you feel that Joe Pesci was really doing something
transformational in himself in that scene?
Mr. IMPERIOLI: Oh, no. I mean, you get into it. And, you know, you're doing
your thing. I mean, I think I was too involved in my thing to like be taken
out of it and think, `Wow, he's really going somewhere else.' I mean, we were
into our own parts and playing it to the hilt. I mean, I never felt he was
out of control or that, you know, I had to, you know--although I did get hurt.
You know, in the scene when they kill me, in the first take, when I'm getting
shot, I hit the ground and I had an actual glass in my hand which shattered
and I sliced two of my fingers open.
So I got rushed to a hospital out in Queens, but I had these huge bullet holes
and blood all over my chest. And as they rushed me to the hospital--as I went
into the hospital, they rushed to have me put on a stretcher and I'm trying to
explain to them that it was my hand, and they just thought I was delirious and
wouldn't listen to anything I was saying and thought, you know, they were
going to have do some kind of--I don't know--trauma surgery or whatever the
hell they were going to have to do. And then they finally understood and saw
all the rigging for the blood packs and stuff like that. And everybody kind
of had a laugh and it was very funny.
GROSS: Sounds to me like a very effective way to get by the triage nurse.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: It was exactly that. But once they found out that it was just
my fingers, they made me wait a long time.
GROSS: Tell me what it was like to work on a movie with De Niro and Joe Pesci
Mr. IMPERIOLI: You know, I learned a lot watching Robert De Niro. I mean,
to be 22 years old and, all of a sudden, be on the set with Robert De Niro and
be an Italian kid from New York and be working with this guy--that was like, I
mean, it was really a dream those two days. I mean, the whole experience of
being in that proximity was really a dream. But I watched him a lot. What I
watched from him was economy. He would come to the set and immediately when
he'd be on the set, he wouldn't kind of dissipate his energies. He would be
very focused and immediately start to be involved with his props or his--you
know, if he was sitting at the card table, when he got to the set, he'd sit
down. He'd get his drink and--you know, his prop drink and his props and
shuffle the cards or whatever.
I remember watching him and, on the set, no time was ever wasted like just
kind of sitting around, you know, talking or just, you know, socializing or
anything like that. When they cut, he would leave the set. He treated the
space of the set as something almost sacred, not to be wasted, not to expend
superfluous energy on, you know, like a stage. When an actor does a play, you
come on to the stage and you do your part and then you get off the stage. And
it seemed he was treating the movie set the same way. Whereas a movie set,
you can come on and just like talk and fool around and some people do that and
that's fine. But economy was the thing that I kept seeing that he was doing
to keep his energies there, so when the camera's rolling and he's doing a
take, you can have your energy be full out.
GROSS: So you were 22. Did you want to talk to De Niro all about "The
Godfather" and "Taxi Driver" or did you want to leave him alone?
Mr. IMPERIOLI: No. The first day, Scorsese came up to me and said, `The
only thing I ask of you is on and off camera, you treat them as their
characters,' which actually was very freeing because I would have been a
nervous, stumbling, you know, fan if I had to say, `Well, what was it like
doing this or that?' You know, this actually took the pressure off, because
the first time I actually was in the room with De Niro, he came and sat down
on the set and I went up to him and asked him what he wanted to drink because
I was in charge of the drinks. And he kind of just looked at me and then he
said, `I'll take a shot of scotch and a glass of water.' There was no alcohol
on the set, it was all props.
But it made it very easy because, you know, he didn't have to be one of the
greatest actors of all time and I'm this, you know, young guy who admires him
so much. Although, in essence, that's kind of what our characters were
because he was a very well-respected mobster and I was someone who looked up
to him. But I didn't break that character until I was done with the two days
and I said goodbye to him. And he was very kind and offered me words of
encouragement and that was it. But it made it very easy to do that.
BOGAEV: Michael Imperioli, recorded last year. He plays the role of
Christopher on the HBO series "The Sopranos." Coming up, we remember Nancy
Marchand, the actress who played Livia Soprano. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Tribute to Nancy Marchand's career as an actress
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
On last weekend's premier of "The Sopranos," the family gathered to say
farewell to Tony's mother, Livia. Between the filming of seasons two and
three, Nancy Marchand, the actress who played Livia, died at the age of 71.
At the end of her more than 50-year acting career, she was perhaps more famous
than ever as a result of her starring role in the series. When she died last
summer, we ran a tribute to her career.
TERRY GROSS: Nancy Marchand arrived in New York just in time to take part in
what's been called the golden age of television, doing live TV dramas in the
'50s, including the famous Paddy Chayefsky play, "Marty." To realize how
against type she was cast in "The Sopranos," all you have to do is listen to
her old roles. Here she is as Rod Steiger's mousey girlfriend in the 1953
live telecast of "Martha."
(Soundbite of "Martha")
Mr. ROD STEIGER (As Marty): What am I? Am I a leper or something?
Ms. NANCY MARCHAND (As Marty's Girlfriend): It doesn't feel like that at
Mr. STEIGER (As Marty): That's the story of my life. I'm just a fat little
ugly guy, you know. Every time there's a New Year's Eve party, so I'm the guy
they have to get a date for. I'm old enough to know better. I'll get you a
package of cigarettes.
Ms. MARCHAND (As Marty's Girlfriend): Marty, I'd like to see you again very
much. The reason that I didn't let you kiss me was because I just didn't know
how to handle the situation. I think you're the kindest man I've ever met and
the reason I tell you this is because I'd like to see you again very much.
Or maybe I'm just too desperate to fall in love or I'm trying too hard, but I
know that when you take me home, I'm just going to lie in my bed and I'm going
to think about you.
GROSS: In the '70s, Marchand took part in another TV classic, co-starring as
newspaper publisher Mrs. Pynchon in the CBS series "Lou Grant." Here's Nancy
Marchand as Mrs. Pynchon in a scene with Ed Asner, another contrast to her
role on "The Sopranos."
Ms. MARCHAND (As Mrs. Pynchon): Mr. Grant, I have enough pressures from
politicians and labor unions and churches and schools and Italian-Americans
and Polish-Americans and Mexican-Americans, all incensed at one time or
another because of something we print or didn't print. When we moved the
bridge column and the day that we kissed off Little Orphan Annie, do you
realize how many threats I received against my life?
Mr. ED ASNER (As Lou Grant): Mrs. Pynchon, there's a...
Ms. MARCHAND (As Mrs. Pynchon): No, Mr. Grant, I don't need you to generate
any heat. I get enough of that from my family for want of a more descriptive
word. I have two nephews, each more disgusting than the other, each masking
his avarice in solicitous murmurings and constant pressures and little
whisperings to sell this building, sell this paper that I love, and invest in
something more sensitive, more lucrative like taco stands, a whole greasy
chain of them, stretching like the Great Wall of China, from San Ysidro all
the way to the Oregon border. Who knows, maybe beyond. Taco stands, Mr.
Grant, and a few shares of majority stock I hold is my only shield between
this once-great paper and a thousand mile ribbon of inedible enchiladas.
GROSS: Now here's Marchand in a scene from "The Sopranos" as Livia Soprano.
She's being visited in the nursing home by her daughter-in-law played by Edie
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
Ms. EDIE FALCO (As Carmela Soprano): You know, Ma, your son loves you very
much. He worries all the time. He felt bad that you didn't come to the open
house. I don't care if you think it's disrespectful, but I want you to cut
the drama. It's killing Tony.
Ms. MARCHAND (As Livia Soprano): What are you talking about?
Ms. FALCO (As Carmela Soprano): I'm talking about this, this poor mother,
`nobody loves me' victim crap. It is textbook manipulation, and I hate seeing
Tony so upset over it.
Ms. MARCHAND (As Livia Soprano): I know how to talk to people.
Ms. FALCO (As Carmela Soprano): Well, I am a mother, too, don't forget. And
you know the power that you have and you use it like a pro.
Ms. MARCHAND (As Livia Soprano): Power! What power? I don't have power.
I'm a shut-in.
Ms. FALCO (As Carmela Soprano): You are bigger than life. You are his
mother. And I don't think for one second that you don't know what you're
doing to him.
Ms. MARCHAND (As Livia Soprano): Who, me? Me? What did I do?
Ms. FALCO (As Carmela Soprano): Look, I didn't come by to argue. I came by
to check on you and to bring you the regards.
GROSS: Finally, let's hear an excerpt of Nancy Marchand's 1999 interview with
our TV critic David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of 1999 interview)
DAVID BIANCULLI (TV Critic): I love this role so much. It is so unlike Mrs.
Pynchon, or most of the things with which I associate you. I can't even
believe it. Can you tell me how you do this and how you got to it in the
Ms. MARCHAND: Well, I was so thrilled that somebody asked me to read for a
part like this after playing so many tasteful ladies that I just jumped at it,
because this was a marriage that I shall always be grateful for, and that is
between me playing a part like this and working with David Chase who is so
wise, so intellectually astute, and there you have it. I mean, there we were.
BIANCULLI: Well, he's the writer-producer of "The Sopranos," and...
Ms. MARCHAND: He is, yeah.
BIANCULLI: ...with the script that you auditioned with originally or the
scene, how much of that was on the page? I mean, so much of the grunts and
the groans and the snarls and the sounds and the chewing with the mouth
open--I mean, that's got to be as much you as it is the writer.
Ms. MARCHAND: Well, I just came upon some of them. Some things I just came
upon when it happened, like the chewing with my mouth open. I thought, `Oh,
that's great. This woman is an animal. She's an animal.' And that's what
she is, and that's what she does. She carries on a conversation, and she's
stuffing her mouth all the time. That was something that happened as we
played it, and then I incorporated it into the performance.
BIANCULLI: Going all the way back to your golden age stuff--I mean, I think
your big breakthrough role on television was as Jo in "Little Women" in studio
Ms. MARCHAND: Right. Hey, you know that.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. Well, I mean...
Ms. MARCHAND: Hey, good for you.
BIANCULLI: If I've got this right, you graduate from Carnegie...
Ms. MARCHAND: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: ...and you decide, as a young woman, that you're just going to be
an actress and head off to New York, and land there I guess in--was it 1949?
Ms. MARCHAND: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Now how old were you then and how gutsy were you then to do
something like that in such a male-dominated town and such a young industry
as television? How'd you do that? How were you allowed to do that?
Ms. MARCHAND: Oh, listen, it wasn't gutsy. It was dumb. I was so dumb.
Nothing stopped me. I just went ahead and did it.
BIANCULLI: A lot of people in early television didn't want to get involved at
first because they didn't trust the medium and others dove in purely because
it was new. Where did you stand?
Ms. MARCHAND: Oh, I just dove in, because it was work. I loved the work.
And I say to this day I don't think there is a job I've ever done that I
haven't learned something from doing it, you know. And so it was all new. It
was all new.
BOGAEV: Nancy Marchand, recorded in 1999. She died last year.
Coming up, a review of the new films "15 Minutes" and "Series 7." This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Two new films dealing with violence in the media, "15
Minutes" and "Series 7"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Two new movies take on the subject of violence in the media. "15 Minutes"
stars Robert De Niro, whose leading role in "Taxi Driver" was criticized for
excessive violence, and "Series 7" stars Brooke Smith, who got her start
playing the kidnap victim in another landmark of violence, "Silence of the
Lambs." Film critic Henry Sheehan has this review.
There's nothing you can say about Hollywood that is so bad that Hollywood
won't gleefully say it about itself. "15 Minutes" and "Series 7" each takes
on media violence, a vague subject that neither film does much to illuminate.
Of course, if you're going to condemn violence, you have to show it, and that
dilemma requires measured, thoughtful filmmaking.
There's precious little of that in the buddy-cop movie "15 Minutes." Robert
De Niro plays a New York City police detective who teams up with a fire
department arson investigator, played by Edward Burns. The two are on the
trail of two Eastern European spree killers, who are videotaping their own
crimes because, as one of them says, he wants to make a great American movie.
Some of the tape ends up in the hands of the host of a TV tabloid show, played
by Kelsey Grammer, who, of course, can't wait to air it. A large chunk of the
movie is routine cop stuff. Here, De Niro and Burns racing to the scene of a
crime in progress discuss who is going to run into the melee first.
(Soundbite of "15 Minutes")
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): I'll go inside, you cover the exit.
Mr. EDWARD BURNS (Actor): Of course.
Mr. DE NIRO: Hey, I always wanted to be a cop, you know, when I was a kid. I
dreamt about pulling out my gun, running up to the door, kicking it in,
yelling `Freeze!' at the bad guy. What did you dream about?
Mr. BURNS: Oh, you know, running up to a burning building, kicking down
the door, rushing through the smoke and saving a kid.
Mr. DE NIRO: Well, then, I guess we're doing it the right way, aren't we? We
pull up to a burning building, I'd gladly let you go first.
SHEEHAN: This recycled hard-boiled crime material is really what the movie is
all about. The criticism of exploitative media is slathered on top of it like
cheap frosting. At that, it pussyfoots around. Melina Kanakaredes plays De
Niro's girlfriend, a local TV reporter, and of course, we know local TV news
never exploits crime footage. But the movie's cynicism runs much deeper than
that. Among its many depictions of extreme violence is this piece de
resistance: a naked prostitute beaten and stabbed to death over several
minutes. Typically, writer-director John Herzfeld makes sure we see it all in
considerable detail, both through the lens of his own camera and on the video
viewfinder wielded by his character. Because the Eastern European criminal,
like virtually all of Hollywood's eastern Europeans these days, is such a
slobbering thrill-seeker, he pushes his camera right into the middle of
violent action. Herzfeld can then distance himself from his own exploitative
attitude towards violence. After all, it's not the director but his character
who wants those bloody close-ups. "15 Minutes" is not only superficial, but
sordid and hypocritical.
"Series 7," on the other hand, at least gives us the option of taking it
lightly. The movie, which is entirely on videotape, purports to be the shows
of the seventh and final series of a TV reality show called "The Contenders."
Each series begins with six participants who are armed with a gun and a video
crew and told to finish each other off. The last one standing wins. The
writer-director, Daniel Minahan, a former tabloid TV producer, was actually
shooting his movie when "Survivor" hit the airwaves. Comparisons between the
two are inevitable and even appropriate. An excellent Brooke Smith stars as
Dawn, the eight-months pregnant winner of the last few contests and now a
national media hero. Smith is such a good actress that she teases out layers
of Dawn's personality, but filmmaker Minahan appears principally concerned
with turning out a black comedy. There's nothing wrong with that; indeed, the
funniest bits in the movie involve pushy parents and their overachieving
daughter who's part of the show. But Minahan's attitude towards the
characters, which is already condescending, becomes contemptuous as well.
Anything we find out about them tends to make them creepy, an ironic twist
considering Minahan's own professional background.
Most of "Series 7's" characters are murdered, some gruesomely, but the
bloodshed tends to take place just off-screen. That discretion implies
respect for death, if not for the characters. That's in contrast to "15
Minutes," which uses the degrading painful murder of a woman as a source of
titillation, then loudly condemns TV for exploiting such material. Wonder how
that will affect the movie's eventual TV sale?
BOGAEV: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
BOGAEV: Terry Gross returns on Monday. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.