‘The Sopranos’ Stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa on PC Police and Canceling Columbus Day
The actors and hosts of the “Talking Sopranos” podcast open up about James Gandolfini’s “hippie” side and why they don’t buy the theory that Tony was killed in the finale.
In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, like so many other Americans, I started rewatching The Sopranos. The Emmy award-winning drama, which ended its six-season run on HBO 13 years ago last month, remains as powerful—and unexpectedly hilarious—as ever in 2020.
And fans like me aren’t the only ones revisiting the series.
In early April, actors Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, and Steve Schirripa, who joined in season two as Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri, joined forces to host the podcast Talking Sopranos. On the weekly show, they reminisce about the old days and recap each episode along with special guests like Edie Falco, who won three Emmys and two Golden Globes for her indelible portrayal of Carmela Soprano. Upcoming episodes feature Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) and John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco).
The pair originally wanted to record the podcast together in the same room and almost scrapped the whole thing once that became impossible. Instead, they have been taping the episodes in their respective California homes—Imperioli in Santa Barbara and Schirripa in Dana Point—about as far as it gets from the New Jersey suburbs where they shot the show’s exteriors back in the day.
This past Friday afternoon, they joined me on Zoom to look back at the show that changed their lives and careers forever and re-examine the divisive cut-to-black ending that remains one of TV’s biggest mysteries all these years later.
What do you think it is about this show that lends itself to rewatching now, 13 years after it ended?
Michael Imperioli: When we sent out the press release for the podcast, David Chase called me and said he thought it was a good idea. And I said, you know, one of the reasons we’re doing a podcast is that the show’s just gotten even more popular in the last few years with people in their twenties and thirties and late teens. And he said, “What is that about? Why?” And I said, not to be flippant, but it’s just really, really good. I think that’s one of the reasons. It’s just executed at the highest level in all the departments—acting, writing, filmmaking. It’s those things you can’t really predict. There’s a little bit of magic that happens when lightning strikes and all the ingredients are right. And somehow I think The Sopranos did that.
And you guys actually had the podcast in the works before everything shut down, right?
Steve Schirripa: Yeah. They made the announcement in February. We were approached to do it. We weren’t sure. And the reason why we wanted to do it was obviously all these younger people [watching], but also there were numerous podcasts out there by people that had nothing to do with the show. What does this guy know? I mean, they don’t know anything. We were there. Michael was there from day one, I came on the second season. So that was a big part of it. I’m not saying people that had nothing to do with the show shouldn’t have a podcast, but you’re not getting the real deal. It’s like buying generic cereal at the grocery store. You’re not getting Cornflakes, you know what I mean? And then we decided not to do it. With the pandemic we thought, who gives a shit about a TV show? The world’s fucking coming to an end. And then on social media, they started contacting us and saying, I can really use that now. After a few weeks we decided to do it. And listen, if we could give people for an hour and a half, two hours, a chance to get away from this stuff, you know, so be it.
What has it been like rewatching for you guys?
Schirripa: I haven’t watched them, nor has Michael, for 20 years, from when it aired. I completely forgot a lot of this stuff. And it’s bittersweet, you know, Jim [Gandolfini] is not with us, a lot of the actors aren’t with us anymore. Also, I always knew the show was funny, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
For each of you, what were your first impressions of James Gandolifini when you met him the first time?
Imperioli: I met him the first day I shot. I had to drive him in a scene and I didn’t know how to drive because I lived in New York. And I smashed the car during a take and it was a big disaster. And he, you know, started cracking up after an uncomfortable, long silence and airbags inflating and shit. So we hit it off right away. We were kind of in similar places in our careers. We had done some work in film and people would notice us a bit in film and we had done theater in New York. But neither one of us were really—our names weren’t really known to the public. Our names were known in the industry. I saw him in a play once and we had a lot of mutual friends, so we were both kind of in a similar career place. And we became really great friends.
Schirripa: The first time I met him was at the read-through. I didn’t know anyone. And he had all these fat jokes, you know? “Calzone with legs,” “You should seriously consider a salad,” calls me a “blimp,” all these derogatory things. And I remember reading the script saying, you know, I’m not that much fatter than him. And when I met him that’s exactly what he said to me. After the read-through he came up to me, we shook hands and he said, “You know, you’re not that much fatter than me.” And I said, yeah, but I’m going to be wearing a fat suit. They told me I had to wear a fat suit season two and three. By season four I got fat enough on my own. But we became very good friends. And listen, it broke our hearts when he passed away. He was a good, generous friend and a good guy.
The story that you guys told about him telling off Harvey Weinstein got a ton of attention, but for me, what it actually highlighted is how humble James must’ve been, in that he didn’t think he was someone who should go on talk shows or call attention to his talent.
Imperioli: I mean, I think he just didn’t like it. I don’t think he liked being interviewed. I don’t know if it was about humility as much as he just didn’t think he had to do it.
He wanted the work to speak for itself?
Imperioli: I guess so. He didn’t feel comfortable analyzing what he does and talking about it. It’s not always the most pleasant thing, especially when you’re doing talk shows and they want you to be funny and tell a funny story. He just didn’t care for that kind of thing.
Schirripa: I don’t think he thought he was that interesting. I used to encourage him. “Go on a show, pick one, whether it be Letterman or Leno or Oprah. Show them that you’re not Tony Soprano.” And he didn’t think that he had anything interesting to say.
How different was he on screen from off screen?
Imperioli: Very different. I think a lot of fans now think that he was that guy and he was not. Jim was more like a hippie. He was very supportive of the troops, he went over to Iraq and went to military hospitals and stuff like that, but he was not a hawk and he was not a right-winger. He was a Democrat. He was not like what you would think Tony Soprano would be. He was much more like a hippie and chilled out, but he definitely wasn’t like Tony Soprano.
Schirripa: Jim wore Birkenstocks, he was into music. He was very kind of nurturing and fatherly. But he was not Tony Soprano. A matter of fact, he would say, before the season, let’s go down to Little Italy, let’s have dinner, I want to start to get back into that world. He wasn’t from that world. He didn’t hang around with those guys. The public wants to think what they want to think and there’s nothing you could do to change that.
Imperioli: A lot of us are not like the characters. Edie is nothing like Carmela. Dominic [Chianese] is nothing like Uncle Junior. Steve is not like Bacala. Tony Sirico is a lot like Paulie Walnuts, I will say that. He’s probably the only one that is pretty much what you see is what you get.
It’s funny, you mentioned his politics and Tony Soprano’s politics, which we don’t really know on the show, but you get some hints. But it was funny rewatching how many times Donald Trump’s name comes up, including toward the end when A.J. starts talking about wanting to work for Trump. What do you make of that?
Schirripa: Listen, this was shot in 2006, so you’re talking 14 years ago. I mean, nobody was making predictions. I guess he was this wealthy, whatever the fuck he was, New York builder mogul, I guess. There were no predictions he was going to be president.
Just part of the landscape of New York and New Jersey at the time.
Schirripa: That was for sure. He was omnipresent even in those days. He was everywhere.
You talk a little bit on the podcast about the political incorrectness of the show, whether it’s racism or the Vito story arc, which is something that might be received differently today. How do you think about that?
Imperioli: How do you think it would be taken differently?
Well, I think it was handled sensitively in a sense, but at the same time, you really don’t see that kind of open homophobia on screen in quite the same way that it was in that story line.
Imperioli: I don’t know, man. I mean, that comes with the territory. These guys, that’s some of their mentality. I think it would be a bigger horror to make them PC and cleaned up. I think that would be a big disservice to the audience. And I think most people understand that. Most people know that these guys are criminals, they’re not the brightest people in the world, they’re not particularly educated and they have a lot of bias.
Schirripa: But the thing is, would people get annoyed at that today, but the killing’s OK? Like Tony Soprano early on in the episode “College,” right? HBO didn’t want him to kill the snitch when he took his daughter to college. And they said, there’s no way, a leading man never murdered someone before, we’ll lose the audience. And David Chase said, no, if he doesn’t kill the guy we’ll lose the audience because that’s what he does. And like Michael has said, he’s taken heat for sitting on the dog, killing the dog, but not for killing, how many people did Christopher kill, Michael?
Imperioli: Tons. A lot.
You got more shit for sitting on the dog than anything else?
Imperioli: I do, yeah. Fans take that very personal and get angry. But listen, the show during the quarantine was like the No. 1 or No. 2 show on HBO. There’s tons of young people watching the show. So in some ways it is on today, you know what I mean? Do I think maybe the studios would be a little reluctant to do certain things? Probably, because everybody’s so afraid to say the wrong thing today, which, when it comes to artistic things is not so great. The whole point of art is to reflect the mirror on society so you can examine it. And if you can’t be honest about it, then what are we doing?
The other episode that really stood out as being newly relevant was the Columbus Day episode [titled “Christopher”], which has a lot to do with different views of Christopher Columbus. And now we’re in a time when people are talking about the Founding Fathers in a similar way. Do you feel like that episode was ahead of its time in a way?
Schirripa: Michael, didn’t you write that one?
Imperioli: I did, yeah. I mean, it wasn’t my idea. David really wanted to address certain Italian-American organizations that had problems with the show. And a lot of these people never saw the show. They just didn’t like mob portrayals and they thought it was somehow defamation of Italians and it just really infuriated David. So this episode, that was the point of that, just to sort of stick it up their asses a bit. But Columbus was an evil motherfucker, man. I mean, people were murdered, they were enslaved, they committed mass suicides. So I understand why people feel that way. I think we should change Columbus Day to Italian-American Day and celebrate all the great contributions to culture.
So this is kind of a a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t gotten to the end of the last season, but—
Schirripa: Listen, Matt, if they haven’t seen the fucking show, it ended 13 years ago!
Agreed. So neither of you are in the final episode. Did you watch it at the time and what did you make of the ending, which became obviously hugely controversial, talked about, everything.
Schirripa: We watched it together. It was the only time nine of us, myself, Michael, Jim, Stevie Van Zandt, Lorraine Bracco, a few others, watched it together. We were doing an appearance at the Hard Rock in Florida. We locked the door with just us. We ate, we drank, we all knew what was going to happen. I personally was stunned. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. It took me a while and I wound up loving it. I don’t know what other ending it could have been. I believe Tony Soprano is alive and well. What you saw is what you saw. There’s a lot of bullshit out there about five different endings—all bullshit. What you saw is what happened. What you think happened is up to you. But there are people out there saying I saw this and Tony got killed and this thing happened. All fucking lies. So you make your own decision if Tony Soprano is alive and well. I think he is.
So wait, what did you think when David Chase called it a “death scene” at one point in an interview?
Schirripa: I still have my own opinion. He said that, but he didn’t admit it afterwards.
Imperioli: I think it seemed like he maybe considered that at one point, but I’m not sure if that’s what he meant. Because I also read an interview where he said that it relates to the song, the lyrics in the song “Don’t Stop Believing”: “The movie never ends. It goes on and on and on,” which means he’s not dead. I think ultimately it’s like, what you see is what you see. It’s over. The story’s over right there at that moment. He was still alive, right? That’s all we know.
There’s also the flashback that happens though, where we see Bobby and Tony in the boat and Bobby says, “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” That’s in the first episode of that season and then they flash back to it near the end. So that’s got to have some meaning too, right?
Schirripa: I think so. I don’t know. Would you really want to see Tony Soprano dead? I don’t think the audience wanted that. I don’t think the audience wanted his family harmed. I really don’t think that that's what they wanted, not that David Chase does what the audience wants. Maybe David doesn’t even know.
And then there were the people who thought their cable went out, which was another problem.
Schirripa: I knew what was going to happen and I was surprised!
Imperioli: It’s pretty abrupt. So I can see why people would think that.
Schirripa: But 13 years later, not a week, sometimes not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask about the ending.
So to wrap up, you’re doing this podcast now, again, 13 years after the show ended. What do you feel the impact of your experience on the show has had on your careers, on your lives, both good and bad?
Schirripa: Well, first of all, I had no career. I had a whole other life. I was 40 years old when I started on the show. I’ve worked steadily for the last 20 years. It gave me opportunity, opened all kinds of doors, to write books and make a movie and all kinds of stuff. I wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for The Sopranos. It’s amazing when I think about it that 50 years from now, people will probably still be watching this show—if the world doesn’t come to an end in the next couple of months. Do they always want to see me as Bobby Bacala? Of course. You play a role on TV, especially as big a show as it was, they kind of put you in that box. But I think I got a lot out of it. I played a suburban dad for five years on the show. I play a detective now on Blue Bloods. It was completely positive.
Imperioli: For me, if you can have a career in this business and be remembered as a character, that’s very hard to do. Most actors don’t work. Most actors don’t make a living. And the ones that do, you might recognize their face, but you don’t remember them. So to actually be associated with a role that people love is a big deal. To be associated with a great role in a show that’s considered the greatest show on TV history, that’s pretty amazing. So to me, there’s no downside.