On January 10, 1999, Bill Clinton was President. A singer named Britney Spears was two days away from dropping her first pop single, …Baby One More Time. The Twin Towers in New York City stood tall, oblivious to the bull’s-eye set upon them. And a New Jersey gangster named Tony Soprano rambled down a North Caldwell driveway and into our homes, where he electrified—and terrified—us for six glorious seasons on HBO’s The Sopranos.
Twenty years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to watch The Sopranos. My parents tried their best to shield their high school freshman daughter from the sex, violence and overall debauchery of the show’s tragically flawed characters. But the buzz around these Italian-Americans from New Jersey was too seductive for me to ignore, and I found ways to sneak in viewings whenever possible.
Like many people around the world, I consider The Sopranos to be the best drama in the history of television. EVERYTHING about the production was top notch—the writing, acting, even the music selections. When James Gandolfini passed away in 2013, I cried as if it were a legitimate member of my family who had died. That’s how scary-good this ensemble was.
To commemorate The Sopranos‘ 20th anniversary, I spoke with Englewood born and current Upper Saddle River resident, actor Vincent Curatola (“John Sacrimoni”, otherwise known “Johnny Sack”), to get his thoughts on this major milestone.
LML: When the show first started, did you expect the legend of Johnny Sack to grow as it did?
VC: It was only supposed to be a one-time gig. My first episode was “Pax Soprana” [Episode 6, Season 1], where Tony commissioned Johnny to help him broker a crooked deal with Uncle Junior for Hesh. But once the series got picked up, they asked me back, and it took off from there.
LML: The backbone of the show was the brilliant writing of series creator David Chase. What was it like working with such high caliber material?
VC: You said it yourself, Lisa. The writing was tremendous, like a hot knife through butter. He painted such a vivid picture for us actors, so it was easy to deliver exactly what he wanted.
LML: Is there a specific episode, or moment, that stands out to you?
VC: There’s a scene where Tony and Johnny meet in Newark, and Tony backs out of the hit on New York boss Carmine Lupertazzi. [“Whitecaps”, Episode 13, Season 4]. It was very intense, for many reasons. I had eight pages of dialogue to work with, which is a huge amount for one scene. Jimmy and I filmed it on a very hot, August night in Newark, and that just added to the emotional burden of the conversation. Tony and Johnny always had a mutual respect—a friendship even—so I had to balance that with Johnny’s frustration and disappointment.
I really don’t watch the show, but since it’s been on for the anniversary, I’ve caught some episodes. Each scene carries a unique set of memories.
LML: Some of the most disturbing Johnny Sack moments for me were when he was dying from lung cancer. What kind of preparation goes into playing impending death so convincingly?
VC: I’m a member of the Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation Board of Trustees, and when the writer for the episode [Terence Winter, who later went on to create Boardwalk Empire] explained what he had in mind, I introduced him to the hospital’s oncology department. Together with Hackensack, Terence flushed out what Johnny’s symptoms would be, what medication he would be taking, and what his final stages of life would look like. Every aspect of the show was treated with the closest attention to detail, another reason that made it so special.
Also in that episode [“Stage 5”, Episode 14, Season 6], I had the honor of working with the late Sydney Pollack. That was an unforgettable experience.
LML: The Sopranos is anything but politically correct. Do you think the show would have survived had it debuted now, in our current pop culture climate?
VC: Certainly. David Chase is a very independent thinker, and I don’t think his ideas would have been swayed by the outrage mob. Back then, we had to deal with complaints from certain Italian-American groups accusing us of making Italians look like criminals. Guess what—there are criminals in every race, religion and nationality! Look at our government—the biggest crooks of all sit in some of the highest parts of office!
But David never backed down, as you saw during the Christopher Columbus episode [“Christopher”, Episode 3, Season 4]. He dug his heels even deeper.
Also, look at his new movie [the upcoming Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark]. I don’t know too much about it, but I know part of the focus will be the racial tension brought on by the Newark Riots. These are still subjects that are very sensitive to some today, but knowing the sharpness of David’s pencil, he will navigate through all of that just fine.
LML: How is your relationship with the cast today?
VC: We were close then, and we have remained close. I had met Jimmy Gandolfini 3-4 years prior to The Sopranos at a little club in New York City called Marylou’s, where a lot of actors would hang out. Being two guys from Jersey, we clicked. That’s where I also met Tony Sirico and Michael Imperioli years before the show. But we’re always around each other, whether it just be for dinner or for an appearance. And while it’s hard to not have Jimmy here, we know he’s with us in spirit.
A very famous celebrity, who was a big fan of the show, once told me that he considered The Sopranos to be The Beatles of television. Different genre obviously, but same similarity as far as changing the game. And we really did—together. That’s a bond that will never break.
LML: You’re talking to me while on set for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. How did The Sopranos help your career?
VC: It’s funny, I haven’t been typecast a mobster or anything like that. If anything, it’s gone the other way. I’ve played judges [on SVU and The Good Wife], cops [Blue Bloods] and even the Mayor of Boston in Patriot’s Day with Mark Wahlburg.
I also sing with a five piece jazz band, and we play lots of dates in New Jersey. That’s been a lot of fun.
LML: I can’t end this interview without talking about The Ending. What do you think happened to Tony at the end of the series?
VC: I honestly think David just closed the door and didn’t let the audience see inside anymore. I don’t believe the family was murdered or anything like that.
The night of the finale, the cast was together doing an appearance. Five minutes before the show ended, they ushered us into a room so we could watch the ending. WE didn’t even know how it was going to end—even Jimmy!—so we were all very interested. When the scene cut to black, all of our cell phones were going off with people freaking out that their cable went out. But to me, it was typical David Chase.