DATE June 8, 2007 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
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News, sitting in for
After eight years, a handful of lengthy absences and who knows how many mob
hits, pasta plates, and topless Bada-Bing dancers, "The Sopranos" is calling
it quits. This Sunday the groundbreaking, TV-changing HBO TV drama series
presents its long-awaited final episode. We'll finally find out whether Tony
Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, A, gets whacked, B, whacks the head of
the New York mob, C, takes his family and retreats into the witness protection
program, or D, does something else which springs from the fertile and
unpredictable mind of series creator David Chase. On today's show, to
commemorate the passing of "The Sopranos," we'll replay Terry's 2000 interview
with David Chase.
Let's start with a scene from an early episode. Tony is sitting in the
kitchen with the lights off, a little preoccupied and more than little drunk
when his teenage daughter Meadow, played by Jamie-Lynne Sigler, walks in and
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. JAMIE-LYNNE SIGLER (As Meadow): Why are you sitting in the dark?
Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I don't know. Like the dark. Sit.
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): I got to go online.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, come on. Sit for a minute. Come on.
So what's going on?
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): With what?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Whatever. I don't know. What's going on?
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): I just told you, a chat room. Is that it?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You know I love you, right, Mead?
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): Dad.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) No, don't "Dad" me. Come on. I want to
know. Do you know that I love you?
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): Yes, I know that you love me.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Because your mother doesn't think I love
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): And you listen to her?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Everything I do and everything I've done
and everything I will do, it's all for you and your mother, you know that.
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): I think you should go to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) 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
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): I'm going to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah, all right, go ahead.
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): Dad, why don't you go to bed?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I'm going to finish my drink.
Ms. SIGLER (As Meadow): OK. Good night.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Good night, baby.
(End of soundbite)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Well, you're so lucky to have found a 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 of pot
belly, receding hairline, pudgy face. It's not Al Pacino.
Mr. CHASE: No. I would--if the--I always go for the actor. If the actor
who came in to read for this part had been Cary Grant and it'd 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. You know, without Jim Gandolfini, there
is no Sopranos. There's no Tony Soprano. 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.
Mr. CHASE: And he comes off as the `regular Joe,' you know. But that's--but
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.
GROSS: Edie Falco plays the role of Carmela. What did you tell Edie Falco
about the character of Carmela after you cast her?
Mr. CHASE: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just comes in, does her work.
GROSS: Was Carmela...
Mr. CHASE: No direction. Honest to God, no direction, no nothing.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. When you...
Mr. CHASE: That's the case with most of these actors. There's very little
directing going on.
GROSS: When you wrote the character of Carmela, Tony's wife, did you base it
on any of the people who you knew from the old neighborhood where you grew up?
Because you grew up the same township that "The Sopranos" is set in.
Mr. CHASE: Right. Right. But it--when you say the old...
GROSS: Same town, I should say.
Mr. CHASE: ...when you say the old neighborhood, I think people probably get
the idea of sort of like stoops and three-story, you know, brownstone houses.
I grew up in the suburbs...
Mr. CHASE: ...and that's where "The Sopranos" takes place. Were there
people in my town like that? I guess actually when I think about it, I think
she reminds me somewhat of some of my cousins.
GROSS: In what way?
Mr. CHASE: Very direct. They'll tell you exactly what's on their mind. My
cousin Diana was a very--I'm thinking about this for the first time. You ask
me this, I've never thought about this before. I had a cousin,
Diana...(unintelligible)... who was much older than me, actually, she's a
contemporary of my mother. But she was my cousin--she was my first cousin.
And she had this kind of--she was tough and she had this kind of world
weariness about her. At the same time, she was a great mother and an
extremely capable, sharp woman. But you could not push her. And, you know,
if you did, you'd hear about it. She'd come back at you.
GROSS: Well, here's a scene between Carmela and Tony from "The Sopranos."
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. EDIE FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) I hope you apologized to him.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) For what?
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Tony, you promised him you were going to be
at his swim meet.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh...(word censored by station)...I
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) How could you forget?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Something I had to do.
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Tony, he almost came in second. You should
have seen his face when you weren't there.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah. Well, I saw his face the other day
when he had to go to the mall when I wanted to take him to the movies.
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) What are you, six years old?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I said I'd try to be there.
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) What is with you, Tony? This whole week
you're like an alien life form among us.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) There's nothing wrong.
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Thank you for sharing.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You know what? Leave me the...(word
censored by station)...alone. I'm exhausted. I'll make it up to him, the
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) So where were you? Did you go see
Christopher at the hospital?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah. I went to see Christopher at the
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Wherever you were, it couldn't have been
more important than letting your son know that you care about him.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) No, only you care. (Word censored by
Ms. FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) No...(word censored by station)...you.
(Word censored by station)...you.
(Soundbite of fighting)
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) What's wrong with you?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: My guest is David Chase. And he's the creator and executive producer
of "The Sopranos."
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. CHASE: I know, people have said that. And I didn't realize that. I
don't see it that way. So it's very difficult.
GROSS: You don't see it that way?
Mr. CHASE: I don't.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. CHASE: The last show, we did a sudden U-turn, if that's what people are
talking about. That last show...
GROSS: The last show 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 we carried over from the first season was, `OK
based on what we seemed to remember about therapy or know about therapy, if
you can press at all because, of course, it takes much longer that this, and
it's much more'--And so you get to a point--you're--`My parents did this, my
parents did that,' you're slamming your parents, your--the shrink is saying,
`Oh, those parents you had, what do you expect? You can't be any better than
you are because'--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?'
You know, 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?' And--`She's your
mother, what can you do about it?' And 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 that 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
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 end, 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. Melfi, from
about three episodes from the end of last season. And this gets a little bit
to what you're talking about. This conservation 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 in, you know, the work that he's doing and in the crimes that
he's committing. So here's Tony with Dr. Melfi.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi): Do you know why a shark
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) They gotta keep moving or they'll die.
They can't breathe or something.
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) There's a psychological condition known
as alexithymia, common in certain personalities. The individual craves almost
ceaseless action, which enables them to avoid acknowledging the abhorrent
things they do.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Abhorrent? What certain personalities?
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) Anti-social personalities.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) My future 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...(word censored by station)...they do?
Ms. BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) 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.
(End of soundbite)
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 it's no
longer--you can no longer blame your parents, your mother, you cannot go
through your life or go 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--I felt--that scene
with Melfi, 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 just a little scared person who just hates himself. And I felt
compassion for the guy.
BIANCULLI: David Chase, speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with David Chase, creator
and executive producer of the "The Sopranos." Terry spoke with him just a few
days after the death of Nancy Marchand, the wonderful actress who played
Tony's manipulative, miserable and murderous mother Livia.
Here's a scene from last episode of the second season, Nancy Marchand's final
show. After living in a nursing home against her will, Livia had been taken
back to her own home by Tony's sister Janice, who moved in with her. But
Janice had to leave town after killing her fiance in a rage. Here's Tony and
his other sister Barbara trying to talk with Livia in her kitchen.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. NANCY MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Have some eggplant!
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I told you, I'm not hungry.
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Now you won't even accept food from your
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Will you please stick to the topic?
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Oh, sure, sure. You believe that uncle of
yours. I never conspired with him.
Ms. NICOLE BURDETTE: (As Barbara) I wish somebody would tell me what you're
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Ask your brother.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I'm here to get your living situation
settled now with Janice gone. Barbara asked me to come here. Beyond that, I
got nothing to say to you.
Ms. NICOLE BURDETTE: (As Barbara) Ma, you can't come live with us. I'm
sorry, but Tom won't allow it.
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Janice was right. I won't go back to that
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You got that right. They won't have you
back at Green Grove.
Ms. NICOLE BURDETTE: (As Barbara) Tony...
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) She was abusive to the staff!
Ms. NICOLE BURDETTE: (As Barbara) Maybe Tom and I should just...
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don't listen
to the manipulation. You got your own life. If you had a mother that had one
shred of gratitude in her, one shred, but you don't.
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) She's taking a page from your wife's book.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, that is...(word censored by
station)...outrageous. Carmela asked you how many...(word censored by
station)...times to come live with us?
(Soundbite of door slamming)
Ms. NICOLE BURDETTE: (As Barbara) Well, he's gone. Nice work, Mom.
Carmela's been so sweet to you.
(Soundbite of car door)
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) (Censored).
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) What? What are you doing?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You're not going to live with her.
There's two tickets, first class. Go to Tucson. Stay with Aunt Jemma. Take
Aunt Quin with you. That ought to...(word censored by station)...her off.
Done my part. That's all you get from me.
Ms. MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) My sister Quintina won't fly.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) So throw her out on the...(word censored
(Soundbite of door slamming)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Now, usually in Mafia movies or in gangster movies, the mother is
strong and wise and protective of the family. How did you come up with a
mother who's so manipulative and bitter and resentful, who even tries to take
a hit out on her own son?
Mr. CHASE: Well, to begin with, one is always trying just to do something
different, and certainly the mob genre has been done a bazillion times.
Mr. CHASE: And I was thinking, `What could make this different?' And I was
curious about Mama Corleone. You only saw her sort of stirring some gravy and
crying, and I realized that you didn't really have any insight into these
women. You did in "Goodfellas;" Lorraine Bracco played a role that was quite
interesting of Henry Hill's wife, but by and large, the women are lost to the
doings of the men, and so that was interesting to me. I thought this may be
interesting to other people, and so therefore, his mother should be
interesting instead of these typical supportive, crying Italian mothers.
GROSS: What did Nancy Marchand bring out in the character? What did you see
in her that let you decide, `She's the one?'
Mr. CHASE: Well, I mean, just how it happened was that we were at the end of
the casting process. Almost all of the other roles were cast, and there were
some difficult roles to cast for this series, but the role of Livia was the
worst. Actresses--very gifted actresses--came in, hundreds of them, and by
and large, what happened was, they would overplay it. It became very big.
They played a totally psychotic version, or it just wasn't good, just wasn't
there. And we were despairing, and we thought, `Well, why is it that no one
seems to get this?' And then the name Nancy Marchand came up, and we thought,
`Hm, well, that could be interesting.' And then when she came in--this is just
the way it happens, always, at least the way I work--she came in, she read the
scene. It was--I was laughing--you know, just laughing out loud. And she was
Livia. It just--she understood it, completely.
GROSS: Did your mother have anything in common with Livia, the mother in "The
Mr. CHASE: Well, first of all, my mother never tried to have me whacked that
I know of.
GROSS: That's a good thing.
Mr. CHASE: Or never conspired with anyone, that I know of. She probably did
say, `I'd like to kill that kid' a couple of times, but not in the same way
Livia did. My mother was a very interesting character. She was kind of
morbid, very much like Livia, focused on the negative, and kind of in the
thrall, by and large, of her own fears and paranoia. It was a little bit hard
for my mother to see anything from anyone else's perspective, kind of pretty
much like Livia. She was--what's loomed largest in my mother's mind always
was her view of the world, and it was very hard to shake that view.
GROSS: Did she make you miserable only to explain that she gave her life for
you, making you feel a combination of anger and guilt, like Tony feels?
Mr. CHASE: Yes, she did do that. Yeah.
GROSS: Now does this mean that you couldn't have written the series with this
character while she was alive?
Mr. CHASE: I don't know. It's been my experience--you know, however many
years I've been in the TV business--that very often, when you base a character
on someone, they don't see that. They don't see themselves in that character.
Mr. CHASE: And that's happened to me a couple of times. Now, it's doubtful
that would have happened with my mother, because probably my cousins or
somebody would have said, `Aunt Norma, it's--you know, it's based on you.'
They would have done me that favor. So I don't think that would have
happened. Could I have done it with her alive? I really don't know.
My mother was also a very funny person. I never knew whether it was
intentional--some of it was intentional and some of it was not intentional,
but because she was--she always spoke her mind, and because she was always
just so into her own preoccupations, that she could be very funny. And I
recall that in the early '80s I did this movie "Off the Minnesota Strip." And
it garnered a lot of attention, and it was played on the air, and it was about
a teenage prostitute who tries to reintegrate with her family in her small
town world after spending some time on Eighth Avenue in New York, she goes
back to Minnesota. So it's revealed at the end of the film that the
reason--one of the reasons this girl turned out this way is that her father
had sexually molested her when she was very young, and there was--as a writer,
which you hope to be--an artful scene in which her mother finally confronts
her father about what he had done, and there it's revealed why this child has
turned out this way.
And my mother was on vacation in Florida, and I called her up to say what
she'd thought of it, and she said, `Oh, it was good.' And I could tell, in a
way, she didn't really get it, and she said she thought that the last scene
was about how they had spoiled her, that they had given her too much
attention, and that they had--and that she was a brat, and that's why she
turned out to be a prostitute. So I don't know that my mother would have
picked up on this thing with Livia. I don't know.
GROSS: I guess you're just too subtle.
Mr. CHASE: You never knew what she was going to pick up on.
BIANCULLI: David Chase, speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. His HBO series "The
Sopranos" ends Sunday night. We'll hear more of their conversation in the
second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The HBO series "The
Sopranos," which premiered in 1999, presents its final episode Sunday. It's
written and directed by David Chase, who created the series. Here's a scene
from last week's episode when Tony, Silvio and Bobby, played by James
Gandolfini, Steve Van Zandt, and Steve Schirripa, are talking in the
Bada-Bing. They're planning to hit Phil, the head of the New York mob, before
he hits them
(Soundbite of "The Sopranos")
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Bert let me know the other night, he's
been playing both sides of the fence with New York.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Bert?
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Measures were taken.
Actor #1: (In character) Bert wasn't speaking for just himself. The guys are
getting squeezed hard to sway them towards new management.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) They thought you'd be a partner.
Actor #1: (In character) And he got an answer. My hope is maybe now if Phil
gets the message, you know, we can talk to...(word censored by
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Talk?
(Soundbite of door closing)
Actor #2: (In character) We're talking about Phil.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) We're going to hit first. I just hope it
dovetails with all this information I got that this...(word censored by
station)...already has a target on my back.
Actor #2: (In character) It's a big move.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) So? (Unintelligible).
Actor #2: (In character) Let me...(unintelligible)...you with the tab for
Actor #1: (In character) I said let it go. Obviously, the truth
is...(censored)...like Phil, appeasement don't work.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: That's how the series is heading to its conclusion. Terry spoke
with David Chase in 2000, after "The Sopranos" had completed its second
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's 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, 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. Of course,
he then did go and get the information; he found Pussy's wire. But we didn't
have a lot of people talking 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. We really just try to make things real. Everything we put in there, we
don't put in there because it's shocking. I mean, the thing about the guy,
you know, having sex with his girlfriend from behind holding a gun to her
head, this is something we read in a book about--I forget the name of the
book. It was a book about, actually, mob women in Italy. And to my mind, it
wasn't that we were just trying to do, `Oh, man, look at that.' Later on, that
gun was going to come back--and that scene was going to come back to haunt
that man in a big way.
Mr. CHASE: It was going to result in his death, not that that's the reason
he got killed but, you know, you shouldn't hold a gun to somebody's head when
you're having sex, I guess. And in the great little karmic universe of "The
Sopranos," he paid for that.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned you found out about that--a story like that in a
book. Where else did you go to find out about mob life? Did you have any,
you know, like connected guys who you could call up and ask questions to and
who could feed you stories? Or was it through books that--or just
Mr. CHASE: Well, it started out--I was very interested in this from a very
young age, growing up in New Jersey. I used to read the newspapers, and you
know, fairly regularly during that era, they'd find a Cadillac with a body,
you know, shot, in the back of the trunk. And this is--"The Untouchables" was
on the air, the original "Untouchables" with Robert Stack, and my dad and I
used to watch that all the time, and I loved that show. And so I began
immersing myself in mob lore very early on. And so I brought to the show a
lot of that. And you know, I have to say right away that the work of Martin
Scorsese has been a tremendous influence and, obviously, a huge pleasure for
me to watch as long as he's been making films. And so I've consistently
gravitated toward it. And so I brought a lot of that with me.
And then just--you know, you kind of--some of it was soaked up from growing
up--you know, I'm sorry to say this, but it's the truth--in an
Italian-American family in New Jersey. A little bit of it was just soaked up,
it's kind of in the air, just a touch. When we actually sat down and did the
show, the problem was that--what's difficult about it, is it's always
difficult to find--I knew all that stuff about "Longy" Zwillman and Johnny
Dioguardi, but it's very difficult to find out what's going on in the mob now
because no one's going to talk about it. So we did talk to some law
enforcement people who were in a position to know. And then--I don't know how
much of this I can actually say--one of our writers on the show, who we miss
terribly, did have connections in his hometown to connected guys. And he was
able to talk to those guys via telephone and bring back information. So it
was really--we got it from as many places as we could.
GROSS: You were talking about how interested you were in mob lore when you
were growing up. What is the appeal of the Mafia? It's been the subject of
so many TV shows and movies, and you've been interested in it, you know, all
your life. Can you put your finger on what it is?
Mr. CHASE: I just go from thing to thing. I've never--I really can't find
one sort of unified field theory that covers it. I just know that people just
seem to just relate to it in some way. I think it has to do with--I read a
quote, I believe it was by John Boorman. He had made this film "The General."
It was about an Irish mobster. He said he believed that in our life today,
everything is so bureaucratic, and institutions control and actually comprise
so much of our life that there's nothing tribal left anymore, and that a
gangster film is a tribal film. And I thought--that struck a chord with me.
I sort of--I did believe that.
GROSS: What's your response to Italian-Americans who get angry that the
connection between Italian-Americans and the mob is perpetuated through "The
Mr. CHASE: I don't--you know, clearly, I'm sure this doesn't come as a
surprise, I don't have a great deal of sympathy with that position. And
there's many reasons for my attitude. You know, I go back to--I was working
on "The Rockford Files" when the Italian Anti-Defamation Movement started in
the 1970s and, you know, I grew up--as a young person in the '60s, I recall
and I still know how black people--African-Americans suffer, to this day,
suffer racial discrimination; how Hispanics, to this day, suffer racial
discrimination. And that was--the '70s was when all that--the late '60s and
early '70s was when all that was really starting to boil over, and along comes
the Italian Anti-Defamation League. But, of course, that was started by Joe
Colombo, who was a mobster. And so I've never been able to completely shake
Now, I know that the groups around now are not run by mobsters, as far as I
know. I assume they're not. But I think what's really the most frustrating
about it is, is that--my understanding of it, and I'm pretty sure about this,
is they do not represent the majority of Italian-Americans. Most
Italian-Americans I run into say, `Oh, we love "The Sopranos." My, God, did
you get it right.' Now what does that mean? It doesn't mean that they're
gangsters. It's true. Mobsters are a very, very small percentage of Italian
Americans. But I don't know what it is with these people, why they never stop
and say to themselves--just possibly let this thought into your head, `What am
I missing here? What is it that so many of my fellow Americans see here and
see in a very deep and profound and seemingly endless way? Is it possible
that I'm overlooking something that a lot of my fellow Italian-Americans even
like.' And for whatever reason--I don't understand this--the Italian-American
gangster story has become a national myth. And why people persist in the kind
of, I think, parochial concerns in the face of that, I sometimes want to ask
them, `Are you an Italian-American or are you an American? Because this is an
GROSS: You initially wrote "The Sopranos" for broadcast TV, for Fox...
Mr. CHASE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and then it got moved to HBO and, again, Fox's broadcast--HBO you
can say and show more. How was the story different when it was for broadcast
Mr. CHASE: As I recall, there was--we never said the F word. And that's
about it, as far as the pilot script goes. Also, when Fox passed on it, I had
the sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons why it happened was that nobody
got killed in the pilot episode, and I thought that--I thought on some level,
`You know what? People want a mob show. These guys want a gangster show.
And you didn't kill anybody.' And so that's kind of what they wanted.
And so when we did the pilot, I thought, `Well, we need to correct that.
Probably someone should get whacked in the pilot episode.' But, see, I don't
really believe that whacking is that endemic to daily--what I want to show is
just sort of daily life. And wiseguys don't go around whacking people every
day. It happens very seldom. And less and less all the time. So I was
trying to do it realistically and, in a way, I guess, I think that kind of
hurt the show's chances at a network.
GROSS: Well, that's funny, because...
Mr. CHASE: I know. It's a strange, stupid paradigm.
GROSS: Right. Not enough violence, although you couldn't use certain
language. But the criticism would have been...
Mr. CHASE: No. No one ever said to me, `You know, David, you should have
had somebody whacked.' I came to that conclusion myself.
GROSS: Ah. Right. I see.
Mr. CHASE: They--it was just way too dark for them at Fox. It was just
never going to happen.
GROSS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
BIANCULLI: David Chase, speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with "Sopranos" creator
GROSS: Now therapy is so at the center of the series, you know--Tony is in
therapy. Were you in therapy a lot? Did you...
Mr. CHASE: A lot, yes.
GROSS: Was your mother a lot of the 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 really big worrier.
GROSS: Yeah. 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...
Mr. CHASE: Hm. I never thought about that.
GROSS: ...inhibited person.
Mr. CHASE: 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.
Mr. CHASE: 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 going
to 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 there was always something--there were copperheads
in the brook when we were--they could do this, because they knew 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 teenager,
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, 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 this 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 to 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. That my friends were interested in--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 growing up.
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
"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 it...
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: But 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 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 think a pretty big
influence on me was this William Wellman movie, "The Public Enemy"...
Mr. CHASE: ...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
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 put 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 everyplace. 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 these dead eyes and he just kind of topples toward
camera right into the lense. 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 my mind.
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: Right. Do you ever hear from people who are in the mob and watch the
series and comment one way or another?
Mr. CHASE: No. Not directly. There are people who work on the show in New
York who know people who know people who know people.
Mr. CHASE: And the word has filtered back through that pipeline that--the
first season what we heard was they just were OK. That's all we ever heard.
We're OK. But then recently in the New York metropolitan area, stories are
printed about a Jersey crime family who--FBI transcripts came out in which
they talked about "The Sopranos" and they felt that "The Sopranos" was based
on them, which it isn't. I want to be quick to assure them. No, it is not at
all. I mean, we make up a lot of this stuff, and it's interesting that it
happens to coincide with what they feel is real life. And actually, I mean,
in terms of--from a realistic standpoint, I have to take that--I'm glad. I'm
glad that we're getting something right about that life because as I said,
it's impossible to penetrate.
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.
BIANCULLI: David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," speaking to Terry Gross in
2000. The final episode of the series, which airs Sunday on HBO, is both
written and directed by David Chase.
Coming up, David Edelstein on "Ocean's 13." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film critic David Edelstein on "Ocean's 13"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The Rat Pack is back. No, not Frank, Dean, and Sammy; but George Clooney,
Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in "Ocean's 13." Clooney plays Danny Ocean in the
third of the series of films directed by Steven Soderbergh. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
"Ocean's 13" is the newest collaboration between Steven Soderbergh and George
Clooney, and it's great fun. It's also fascinating to think about in relation
to their last project, the misbegotten "The Good German." There, Soderbergh
set out to make the anti-"Casablanca," but in the glossy, glamorous, old-movie
style of "Casablanca." He wanted to expose the corruption the glamour
concealed, that existed in Germany in the wake of the greatest generation's
greatest victory. The film, possibly inspired by Soderbergh and Clooney's
despair over Iraq, came off as heartless and cheap, but it was remarkably
consistent with the body of Soderbergh's work. He shoots his own films under
the name Peter Andrews, and since his debut "Sex, Lies and Videotape," he has
probed the unreliability of surfaces. The bigger the sheen, the bigger the
So what does this have to do with "Ocean's 13," the second sequel in a
franchise that began as a remake set in swank Las Vegas with stars getting
huge paychecks for hamming it up in expensive suits? Well, it's all, and
only, surface, a big gorgeous lie. The movie glides in on a wave of
hipsterism, on Vegas-y jazz, an A-list of leading men who saunter across the
color-saturated screen. There are no visual or moral dissonances. Our
twinkling thieves led by Danny Ocean, played by Clooney, aren't in this one
for the money. They're out to avenge their friend and elder, Reuben, played
by Elliott Gould, who goes into a catatonic state after being muscled out of a
deal by casino magnate Willie Bank, played by Al Pacino. After consulting
with his posse, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and others, Ocean
decides to give Bank a second chance before bringing him down. They call this
a "Billy Martin," for the alcoholic Yankees manager who kept getting fired and
rehired until he finally ran his car into a tree.
(Soundbite of "Ocean's 13")
Mr. AL PACINO: (As Willie Bank) Some guys, I take seriously. You told me
you're a serious guy.
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Right. What I want, what's most
important to me, is that Reuben gets his share of the hotel restored. Now,
I'm here to give you a chance to do that.
Mr. PACINO: (As Willie Bank) Oh, you're going to give me a chance? Ha ha!
OK. It's a Billy Martin? I pass. The last time I looked--and I look every
morning--it was my name listed as owner on more valuable property in this
state than anyone else in history.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Which means you got a lot more to lose.
Mr. PACINO: (As Willie Bank) Oh, but I don't lose. People who bet on me to
lose, lose, and they lose big. You come at me, you better know I move quick,
and when I do, I slice.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) So you're not going to make Reuben whole?
Mr. PACINO: (As Willie Bank) If Reuben was too weak or stupid to see what
was coming down, then you know what? He doesn't belong here. He's made the
right choice. Roll over and die. Let him be.
(End of soundbite)
EDELSTEIN: Pacino has a good time flashing his choppers under a curly,
hennaed thatch of hair, setting his character up for the fall you know will
come. Ocean and his team must prove mightier than this pop top. They're
masters of the con as the smooth multifaceted machine. They even manage to
bring on board Ocean's previous arch-enemy, casino owner Terry Benedict,
played by Andy Garcia. He resents Pacino's new place for throwing a shadow
over his swimming pool. It's a good move for the movie, too. Garcia has
never looked so sleek and sharp and dangerously pleased with himself.
The previous sequel, "Ocean's 12," had an excellent comic subplot with Julie
Roberts, but was otherwise all over the place. This one, without Roberts or
any love interest, is as elegant and streamlined as its hero. The movie's
interlocking scams and triple crosses aren't always easy to follow, but
Soderbergh is a savvy guy. As the plotting gets knottier, his technique gets
more fluid, the editing jazzier, the colors more luscious, the whip pans more
whiz bang. It's all anchored by Clooney, looking impudent, roguish, laughably
handsome. The character, the whole movie seems to emanate from his well-known
real life penchant for practical jokes.
"Ocean's 13" is such an exhilarating ride, it made me wonder if Soderbergh,
after deconstructing every lustrous image in "The Good German," was liberated
by making a con artist comedy in Vegas. The city, after all, is a monument to
con artistry. Every surface is a lie. "Ocean's 13" has so many layers of
deception, it's practically deep. It's like the famous cosmology joke about
turtles. It's lying surfaces all the way down.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(Soundbite of "You Do Something to Me")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) You do something to me
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.