The Sopranos

The Sopranos Almost Looked Very Different, and Not Just Because of James Gandolfini

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, HBO’s landmark drama series The Sopranos remains the best and most influential crime drama in TV history. The series marked a monumental shift in the kinds of stories told on the small screen, including beloved protagonists doing unforgivable criminal acts while retaining their sympathetic humanity. However, if the stars didn’t align just right for series creator David Chase and HBO at the turn of the millennium, The Sopranos would look much different today.

For instance, The Sopranos was initially conceived as a feature film instead of a TV drama that lasted 7 seasons between 1999 and 2007. Stranger yet, the show was pitched to network television instead of a premium cable channel, which would have robbed the show of its iconic profane language and unforgettable violence had it been picked up. There’s also the crucial casting of Tony Soprano, which would look much different had the late great James Gandolfini not been cast as arguably TV’s greatest character.

The Sopranos Was Conceived as a Feature Film

The Sopranos is an organized crime drama created by David Chase, a veteran TV producer and writer behind such popular shows as The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and more. The story concerns the ultra-cool gangster Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob boss and family man doing his best to balance his personal and professional lives.

By day, Tony fronts a construction and sanitation business. By night, Tony uses these illegal fronts to operate all sorts of criminal activity, including bookmaking, racketeering, stick-ups, drug dealing, and other sordid activity orchestrated from the backrooms of the Bada Bing strip club and Satriale’s Pork Store. To combat the escalating anxiety and existential unease of putting his family in danger, Tony undergoes therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

Although the show would later be praised for its realistic cinematic approach, fans may be shocked to learn that The Sopranos was originally conceived as a feature film. According to The WGA, Chase envisioned The Sopranos as a feature-length crime comedy film about “a mobster having therapy problems with his mother.” Shown in the 2021 feature film prequel to The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark, Chase drew on his upbringing in New Jersey in the 1970s, focusing on the family fabric among ruthless criminals. The main point of conflict is Tony’s bitter relationship with his disapproving mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), which Chase drew on from his childhood.

If a mafia film comedy about a mobster entering therapy sounds familiar, Harold Ramis’ 1999 feature Analyze This boasts the same premise. The comedy movie starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal became popular enough to warrant the 2002 sequel, Analyze That. Analyze This was released only three months after The Sopranos aired its pilot on HBO. However, despite the remarkably similar premises shared between the series and film, David Chase wrote the pilot after he signed a development deal with HBO in 1995 (per Vanity Fair). Therefore, the timing of The Sopranos and Analyze This was purely coincidental.

The Sopranos Was Pitched to Fox and the Network Had an Interest

After consulting with his manager, Chase opted to adapt his feature film script for The Sopranos into a TV show. Once the pilot was written, Chase and his producer Brad Grey pitched the series to various networks. While it’s impossible to imagine The Sopranos living anywhere but HBO, Chase, and Grey took the pilot to Fox and the network expressed interest in producing the project. However, once Chase turned in the pilot script, Fox passed on the series and opened the door for HBO to swoop in.

While HBO exec Chris Albrecht deserves credit for taking a big risk with The Sopranos on HBO, the show would look much different had Fox decided to pick up the series and order a full season. Along with watershed TV series like The Wire, Oz, and Deadwood, The Sopranos elevated HBO programming to a new level of quality cinematic storytelling. Had the show aired on Fox, everything that made The Sopranos special would have been censored and butchered past recognition. The hyper-violence, the profane mafia slang, and the depiction of a complex protagonist who constantly lies, cheats, steals, and kills — yet remains a loving father working his problems out in therapy — would all cease to be on a safe family-friendly network like Fox.

The only equivalent is House, the acclaimed 2004 medical drama following a troubled, morally dubious protagonist. Yet, released five years after Fox passed on The Sopranos, it’s no stretch to assume the latter inspired the former. The Sopranos seismically shifted the landscape of TV drama beyond HBO and the ripples can still be felt 25 years later.

The Casting of James Gandolfini Changed Everything

Although The Sopranos would look much different as a movie competing with Analyze This and a sanitized network TV show on Fox, nothing was more important than the casting of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. A brilliant character actor who appeared in many movies before his big break, Gandolfini was asked to audition for Tony Soprano after a casting director saw his unforgettable performance in True Romance. It’s impossible to envision anyone other than Gandolfini in the role today, and the show would look much different if the other actors in the running were cast instead.

For example, Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia was David Chase’s first choice to play the Italian-American Tony Soprano. While that is hard to imagine, several other Sopranos actors auditioned for the lead role. Those who auditioned to play Tony Soprano but were cast in minor parts instead include Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), Michael Rispoli (Jackie Aprile), and John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco).

Along with Lorraine Bracco, 27 actors from Martin Scorsese’s all-time great mafia movie Goodfellas appear in The Sopranos. The star of Goodfellas, the late great Ray Liotta, was also considered to play Tony Soprano at one point. While Liotta’s casting would have made the show different and given it a cinematic prestige, looking back, no one could perform the role with such convincing command as Gandolfini. Similarly, without HBO taking a bold chance to bring a compelling mob drama on par with the best crime movies into living rooms, The Sopranos and TV writ large wouldn’t look the same.

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