Crime boss Tony Soprano is the conflicted suburban dad at the center of HBO's influential hit series The Sopranos. Now meet the real father of the show.
By Jesse Oxfeld
It's the journalist's job to reveal important truths, so when I sit down to interview David Chase, the creator, executive producer and chief writer of The Sopranos, the hit HBO series that begins its fourth season this fall, there is a question I feel obliged to ask immediately. What happened to the Russian?
This is not an idle concern.
The Sopranos is a tremendous cultural force, a widely hailed, highly viewed, constantly talked-about television show that, for the 13 weeks it runs each year, is a near national obsession. The Washington Post said the show “has gone beyond the status of mere TV series and is rife with reverberation—‘social significance,’ trite as that term may be.” Last year it garnered 22 Emmy nominations, more than any other show.
The Sopranos is different from anything that has come before on television. Its protagonist, Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), is a mafia godfather running a powerful North Jersey crime family. He is also a suburban dad, with a pampered wife, sullen teenage children, an overbearing mother, troubles at work and a psychiatrist to help him deal with it all. One minute he is spewing obscenities and roughing up a friend who owes him money, the next he is squirming in his chair at the principal’s office hearing about his underachieving son. This mixture of gangster drama and mundane family life seeds the show with excitement and pathos, horror and empathy. Viewers may be moved to root for and despise the same characters within the same hour. “The Sopranos is something new and fresh each week,” says Marc Peyser, ’86, who covers television for Newsweek. “No other show has the guts to do that.”
David Chase, MA ’71, developed the concept for The Sopranos, brought it to HBO, wrote and directed the pilot episode. He continues to oversee every aspect of every broadcast, in addition to writing several episodes each season. “He’s the intellectual, creative, spiritual, conscious and unconscious leader of the show,” says Chris Albrecht, HBO’s president of original programming.
Which should make Chase uniquely qualified to answer a question that’s plagued Sopranos watchers since May of last year, when an episode titled “Pine Barrens” aired. In it, two of Tony’s lieutenants attempt to dispose of a Russian mobster’s body in a remote forested area of South Jersey. Problem is, when Tony’s guys open their trunk to remove the supposedly dead Russian, it turns out he’s not dead. So they give him a shovel and tell him to dig his own grave. What they don’t know is that their prisoner was once a commando in the Russian army. Though he’s badly injured from an earlier beating administered by the Soprano thugs, handing him a potential weapon isn’t the best idea. A few thwacks later, the Soprano men are bleeding, and the Russian has escaped into the woods, where he is maybe dead from his injuries but maybe alive and on his way back to his bosses. Nearly 9 million people watched the episode, and most were left wondering when and how the Russian would return. Sen. John McCain, for example, discussed it when a New Yorker writer was spending a day with him. “I forgot to tell you the greatest thing,” said the Arizona Republican, who had spent the previous evening at a fund-raising dinner. “Two tables away was the cast of The Sopranos . . . . I told Lorraine Bracco,”—who plays Dr. Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist— “‘I want the Russian guy back. This season, bring the Russian guy back.’”
So, what happened to the Russian?
David Chase has no answer. “We never thought people would be asking where he went,” Chase says, slumping into a plush sofa in his office at the Silvercup Studios in Queens, N.Y. It’s the last day of shooting for the first episode of the new season, and Chase is shuffling between the set and the writers’ area at Silvercup, a former bread factory with hardwood floors, soaring ceilings and breathtaking views of Manhattan. The walk to the building is desolate: passing warehouses, auto-repair shops and Dumpsters stenciled with “Cinelli Carting” puts you in the right frame of mind to enter Sopranoland. Chase’s office, though, is more Hollywood, with a cherrywood desk, an Aeron chair, a big TV by the windows and a Peabody award—perhaps television’s most respected prize—on the bookcase. “People have really been much more interested in the answer to that question than I thought they would be,” he says. “It was supposed to be sort of a fairy tale: who knows where he went?”
Who knows where he went? This could be part of Chase’s I-ignore-the-hype-around-the-show mystique. For all his success, Chase comes off like just another workaday shlub, with deep-set eyes, salt-and-pepper hair and, on the day I met him, a gray fleece pullover, ill-fitting (though hip Diesel-brand) jeans and a standard-issue “Sopranos crew” ID badge around his neck. He’s reticent, at least at first, and soft-spoken. And he professes to be happily aloof from the swirling popular analysis of plot developments, character traits and questions like the Russian’s whereabouts. He says he’s trying to avoid “getting self-important, or believing your own press.”
Staying detached can’t be easy. After the show’s first season, in 1999, the New York Times announced that The Sopranos “just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” and Newsweek called it “far and away the best show on television.” HBO estimates that 13 million people saw each installment of the show last season. That number is impressive when you consider that HBO, a premium cable service, reaches only about 34 million homes, roughly one-third as many as the biggest networks reach.
All the attention, says Albrecht, the HBO executive, “puts an incredible pressure on everybody, but especially David. We all feel, and I know David in particular feels, that there’s a lot of pressure for him to deliver something extraordinary every time out.”
Chase grew up in the Essex County suburbs of New Jersey, the same area haunted by Tony Soprano and his family. And, like Tony, he is Italian-American—before the family name became Chase, it was DeCesare. He lived in North Caldwell, as do Tony and his wife, Carmela, and he graduated from West Essex High School, which the Soprano kids, Meadow and Anthony Jr., would attend if they went to public schools.
North Caldwell is a 40-minute drive from NYU, which Chase attended as an undergraduate. It was at NYU, he says, that he began to see filmmaking as a serious art form. “I’d always loved movies,” he says, “but I began to think about it as a potential way of expression, and as a job.” He knew he wanted to go to film school, and he knew he wanted to do it far from the New York area. “I wanted to get away from my family,” he recalls.
Chase had an overbearing, narcissistic mother—not unlike Tony’s mother, Livia. (Although his mother never attempted to have her son killed, as Livia did in the show.) He’s an only child, and so, he says, “I was the focus of all her attention. My mother was really kind of—she wasn’t dangerous, like Livia, but she was just as self-centered and outrageous.”
In 1968, Chase finished college, married his wife, Denise, and left for Los Angeles. (The couple’s college-age daughter, under the name Michele DeCesare, plays the occasional role of Hunter Scangarelo, Meadow’s friend.) Chase had been rejected by the UCLA film school and arrived too late to enroll at USC. The couple ended up moving in temporarily with an aunt in the Bay Area, where Chase got a job in a film lab. He’d already applied to Stanford’s graduate program in film and broadcasting (today it’s the graduate program in documentary film and video), and while he was at his aunt’s, he was accepted. “Plus they gave me a fellowship,” he says, “and that decided it.”
Communication professor Henry Breitrose, PhD ’66, who ran Stanford’s film-studies program for more than three decades, recalls that Chase “had a fairly limited interest in documentary, so I did what one does with bright and talented students: I did as much mentoring as I could, and I let him follow his talents.”
Those talents led to Chase’s thesis film, a fictional story about a gangster. Chase does not remember it fondly. “My thesis film was a parable—and stupid,” he says. “It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, deconstructivist bullshit.” Breitrose is marginally kinder: “It had some interesting ideas, was technically acceptable—more or less—and, from time to time, the acting rose from unspeakable to abysmal.” But it was also, arguably, the Rosebud moment, “an arrow pointing to his future direction,” Breitrose says.
What the professor didn’t know was that Chase had long been obsessed with mob life and gangster stories. “My father and I used to watch The Untouchables together, and I used to read accounts of these gangland killings, and it used to scare me and also thrill me,” Chase says. “These lawless tough guys were Italian—and as a kid, I liked that idea.” Plus, The Godfather—Mario Puzo’s novel, upon which the later Oscar-winning films were based—came out while Chase was at Stanford. “I was just ready for that book,” he says.
You can see a bit of Tony Soprano, of Michael Corleone, in David Chase—ethnically and culturally, of course, but also in the persona. Said to be intensely loyal, Chase extends to friends and colleagues a kind of godfatherly benevolence. Breitrose recalls a letter he once sent to Chase in which he mentioned that the film- studies program needed new projection equipment. “A few days later the phone rang, and it was David, who said—and I remember the words precisely—‘It would give me great pleasure to help you.’”
And there is no question he is paterfamilias of the Sopranos cast and crew. In fact, borrowing the language of the show’s genre, Chris Albrecht says that around the set and production offices, “he is the don. He’s Don Chase.”
“He believes in us like a completely focused father figure,” says Edie Falco, who has won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Carmela Soprano. “The thing I love most is that when he’s on the set, and he’s sitting behind the monitor with the earphones on, listening, once in a while you can hear him chuckle—he’s got a very specific laugh, and he holds it until the cut and then you hear him crack up. It really is a parental thing, like you’ve pleased your dad.”
Chase can also be intimidating. I learn this when I innocently comment that, although he’s never had a chance to make a movie, on HBO he at least gets to put on a very cinematic show.
“What does that mean?” he shoots back.
Well, it’s, uh, well-shot and interesting and . . . and . . . you don’t have a break every 12 minutes for a commercial . . .
“So would you consider Sex and the City cinematic?”
No. Which seems like the right answer.
“Would you consider Six Feet Under cinematic?”
Half-beat pause to consider—Yes.
“What’s cinematic about it, Six Feet Under?” he asks, speaking quickly and quietly.
This goes on for a little while. “I mean, I’m glad you think [The Sopranos] is cinematic,” he says ultimately, at a more relaxed pace that signals my ordeal is over, “but I don’t think if you go to HBO, it necessarily becomes cinematic. That was something we wanted to bring to it.”
Chase never wanted to be a TV guy. “Like most things in my professional life, this whole thing was undertaken with the hope that it would get me into features,” he says of The Sopranos. “I would write this show, I would direct this show, nothing would happen with it, which is usually what happens with pilots, but it would be a good sample of my writing and directing abilities, thereby allowing me to become a feature filmmaker.”
It’s easy now to look at his thesis film, to isolate elements of his personality, and think everything was pre-ordained, that The Sopranos was simply the product of talent and vision meeting opportunity. But it was not nearly so easy.
Finishing Stanford in 1971, Chase moved to L.A., where he’s lived ever since—he and his wife still have their home there, in addition to the Manhattan rental they live in while The Sopranos is in production. At first, the only movie work he could find was on softcore porn films. After a while, though, a Stanford connection worked out: a screenwriting professor, Janet Volcker, had sent one of Chase’s scripts to an executive at Universal, and eventually that executive called. Chase got his first writing job—on a television show so nondescript and unsuccessful he can’t even remember its name. But in the classic Hollywood way, he met people who knew people who needed people, and he moved from that job into a series of writing jobs on bigger shows, first on the cult hit Kolchak: The Night Stalker and later on the James Garner series The Rockford Files. After Rockford, Chase wrote a TV movie called Off the Minnesota Strip, which won him an Emmy. This was the ticket-punch he needed, and he started landing development deals—agreements in which a network or production company essentially puts writers on retainer, while they come up with new projects. He wrote many pilots, all of which flopped.
Around 1990, Chase had a development deal with Lorimar, for which he’d done some unsuccessful pilots. At that time, the company had created and sold I’ll Fly Away, a thoughtful drama about the civil rights movement in the South, and Chase ended up as one of the show’s executive producers, creating storylines, supervising scriptwriting, choosing directors and overseeing casting. “David brought his point of view, which is not right-down-the-middle-of-the-bowling-alley, predictable, correct,” says Sam Waterston, star of the show. After two seasons, Chase moved to executive producing Northern Exposure, also created by the I’ll Fly Away team. While Chase had admired I’ll Fly Away, he was less fond of Northern Exposure. “I like comedy, and I like writing comedy,” he says, “but I found that show somewhat self-conscious and self-congratulatory and precious. But Universal came to me, and they offered me a lot of money, more than I’d ever made, and I said okay.”
Even more important than the money, two years at Northern Exposure then led to a development deal at Brillstein-Grey, which is where Chase created The Sopranos. It was originally to be a pilot for Fox, but the Murdoch network passed. The other three networks all looked at it and passed, too. Then, as Chase’s deal with Brillstein-Grey was winding up, Brad Grey learned that HBO was looking for new shows and sent over a reworked version of the pilot script. “We hadn’t read anything like it before, and the quality of the writing just jumped off the page,” recalls Chris Albrecht.
HBO hadn’t read anything like it before because there hadn’t been anything like it before. And Chase is well aware of that. He has a lot to say about why his show is inherently superior to most prime-time dreck—which, by Chase’s definition, includes nearly everything on the air.
When I ask if he likes The West Wing, NBC’s highly rated and critically lauded White House drama, he says he has seen only one episode, the post-September 11 one “where they’re down in the basement talking about terrorism.”
What does he think about hourlong dramas considered innovative, like Hill Street Blues or early NYPD Blue? “I don’t know what it is about television . . . everybody’s good”—the cops and the prosecutors and the White House staff—Chase says, almost dismissively. “Maybe they’re a little irritable. And maybe in the pursuit of their job they get a little”—he waves his hand, signaling mixed up, or over the top—“but only because they care so damned much. For us. Otherwise they wouldn’t be behaving like that. They like to call that dark. They like to call what I’m now talking about dark. What [dark] means is complex. Humanly complex and mystifying.” The Sopranos, he’s clearly implying, now that’s dark.
We move on, talking about a now-notorious memo Bob Wright, the NBC chief, sent to a bunch of his network’s executives along with a tape of a Sopranos episode. In it, Wright acknowledges The Sopranos’ wide acclaim but concludes, “It is a show which we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity.” Although Wright’s memo didn’t exactly criticize the show, HBO executives—and many in the television business—read it as an attack.
It wouldn’t be the first time The Sopranos was a target. Some have faulted the show for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans—prompting Essex County executive James Treffinger to deny the show a permit to film in county parks.
“Never once has this show said or implied that every Italian- American is connected to the mob,” Chase says. “Everybody in the thing is Italian, but the show is really about corruption: it’s about good and evil. And in The Sopranos, there are good Italians and there are bad Italians.”
And to those who find the show too violent, he responds, “I think that one of the reasons people watch a mob show is because they are buying a certain amount of violence.” In fact, Chase asserts that his show is no more violent than others on television. “In this coming season of The Sopranos, I think there’s going to be five homicides. Go around to any cop show and see how many there are. Go to Law & Order, go to Special Victims Unit, go to NYPD Blue, and they’ll have homicides every week.”
The networks, constrained by advertisers’ concerns and audience sensibilities, can’t use the obscenity and nudity common in The Sopranos. But couldn’t they do a show just as good? Yes, says Chase.
“There isn’t any reason why someone couldn’t do a really complicated, psychologically intricate and totally engaging drama series on a network,” he says, and then The West Wing falls into his sights—“one which didn’t provide you with all the answers, which didn’t give you arrows saying you’re supposed to feel this way now, and let us tell you how we feel about this, that wasn’t just some kind of sermon, tricked up with actors moving their mouths. That could happen. But it doesn’t.”
The networks, Chase says, are “interested in giving answers instead of raising questions. I’m not a propagandist. I don’t have the answers for shit. But other people think they do. And other TV producers are very content to give people their view, their vision of whatever it is. I’m not.”
How much longer The Sopranos will be around to raise questions is a question of its own. Initially, Chase was contracted for four seasons, and he made some noises during last year’s run about ending the show after that time. He thought the characters couldn’t sustain more than four years, that plotlines would be worn out and that the show would turn into another ER, still highly rated but totally played out. But eventually Chase decided to hang around for a fifth season. “HBO really wanted it badly,” he says. “And I began to feel, really, that these characters have more to say, that there’s more stuff to explore.”
But not a sixth season’s worth of stuff to explore, apparently. “This is the end,” Chase says emphatically when I bring up the idea. But couldn’t he maybe decide, as he did once already, that there’s still more to work with? “I really don’t think so,” he insists. “I don’t think that would be a good thing. Somebody else could do it, but me, no.”
But HBO would never do it without Chase; if he says it’s the end, it’s the end. Chris Albrecht learned early on to trust Chase’s judgment. That lesson came during production of the show’s fifth episode, in which Tony, while accompanying Meadow on a New England college tour, runs into a former mafioso turned rat and later kills him. “When I read the script, I didn’t think that Tony should kill the guy,” says Albrecht. “But David was adamant that Tony kill the guy. I said, ‘David, it’s too early, the audience will hate him.’ And David said, ‘If he doesn’t kill the guy, the entire show is full of shit. Because in this situation, that man would kill that guy.’ Finally, I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to give him enough rope to hang himself,’ and, of course, not only was he right, but it was a seminal moment in the show. I think it was the moment where everybody went, ‘Holy shit, we have never seen anything like this before.’ And I also learned a big lesson in that exchange, which was: trust David Chase.”
Of course, Albrecht should have known better than to doubt Chase. He’s the one who calls him the don.
Jesse Oxfeld, ’98, a third-generation native of Essex County, N.J., is a writer living in New York City.
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Data is from the past two weeks.