Speed Read

R.I.P. James Gandolfini: 8 Wild Stories About the Making of ‘The Sopranos’

The most eye-opening stories from GQ’s article on the men who made ‘The Sopranos.’

HBO, via Everett Collection

James Gandolfini suddenly died Wednesday of a cardiac arrest at the age of 51. Ironically, GQ magazine ran a feature this month detailing the behind-the-scene details of the show that made him famous as Tony Soprano. Here, are the eight most eye-opening stories from the article, The Night Tony Soprano Died: An Excerpt from Brett Martin’s Difficult Men.

1. James Gandolfini was destructive.

“Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom-box radio.”

2. He was also self-destructive.

“In papers related to a divorce filing at the end of 2002, Gandolfini's wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration. To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera—he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head—it was a plausible scenario.”

3. He stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

“The heavy bathrobe that became Tony's signature, transforming him into a kind of domestic bear, was murder under the lights in midsummer, but Gandolfini insisted on wearing it between takes.”

4. His work ethic was bipolar.

“By the winter of 2002, Gandolfini's sudden refusals to work had become a semiregular occurrence. His fits were passive-aggressive: He would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his TriBeCa apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused—akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime—that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. ‘All of a sudden there'd be a sushi chef at lunch,’ one crew member remembered. ‘Or we'd all get massages.’”

5. The show’s creator and show-runner David Chase didn’t take bad news well.

“Chase's assistant learned to institute a ‘five-minute rule’ whenever bad news was delivered: the amount of time needed for the desk-kicking and yelling to stop and a more rational response to commence. Not that there was a lot of bad news. ‘Nobody said no to David. Ever,’ she says. ‘Except Jim [Gandolfini]. And even he said no only by not showing up.’”

6. One screenwriter got personal revenge against creator David Chase for firing him.

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After being loved, hated, and everything in between by Sopranos creator David Chase, Chase finally fired young screenwriter Todd Kessler, ending their on-again-off again professional relationship once and for all.

“’I've never seen people get fired so fast. You walk into David's office and ten seconds later the door opens and you have your shit in a box. He does not mince words,’ [producer Terence] Winter says.”

“A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for a new series of his own, to appear on FX. Rather than assume an autocratic role, he would share the duties of showrunner with his brother, Glenn, and a writer named Daniel Zelman. The series ran for five seasons and won four Emmys. The plot revolved around a terrible boss—brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable—and a young, talented, but impressionable employee who finds herself seduced, repelled, and ultimately both matured and corrupted by coming into her orbit. It was, he said, based in no small part on his experiences working on The Sopranos. The show was called Damages.”

7. No cost was off limits for The Sopranos.

Sopranos writer Andrew Schneider said of their budget: “HBO was paying for these lavish parties, big night shoots, things you would have censored yourself from writing before because you could never afford it. In normal television, you take out walk-ups, you take out night shoots. It takes a long time to light a street. Here you could have a quarter page saying, 'Character walks down the sidewalk and enters the house. And it's night. And it's raining.' You were free."

David Chase even banned certain money-saving techniques from their production: “Chase, for instance, banned "walk and talks"—in which two characters, in the frame together, exchange information while heading toward their next destination—because it was a common network money-saving technique.”

8. James Gandolfini had a habit of not showing up for set, even going days without calling.

“So when the actor failed to show up for a 6 p.m. call at Westchester County Airport to shoot the final appearance of the character Furio Giunta, a night shoot involving a helicopter, few panicked…Over the next twelve hours, it would become clear that this time was different. This time, Gandolfini was just gone.”

But his absence caused a huge financial loss: “A small army of craftsmen was employed in fabricating these details, and their work added up to as rich and fleshed-out a universe as had ever existed on TV: upwards of 200 people, plus a whole other team of post-production crew stationed in Los Angeles.”

And some involved in The Sopranos thought Gandolfini had died. When writer Terence Winter was driving to work, he heard a newscaster report: “’Sad news from Hollywood today...,’ and his heart stopped. ‘It was some drummer for a band,’ Winter says. ‘But I thought, 'Holy shit! He's dead.' Then… the show's production office rang. It was Gandolfini calling, from a beauty salon in Brooklyn. To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, asking to use the phone. He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home.”