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'Fresh Air' Marks The 20th Anniversary Of The Premiere Of 'The Sopranos'

Critic David Bianculli offers an appreciation of the influential HBO drama. Plus, we listen back to archival interviews with series creator David Chase and Edie Falco, who played Carmela Soprano.


Other segments from the episode on January 11, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross. January 11, 2019: Interview with David Chase;



This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.

BIANCULLI: Today we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of "The Sopranos," which premiered on TV this week back in 1999, the same year as NBC's "The West Wing" and ushered in what I consider the platinum age of television. In a few minutes, we'll hear an interview from our archives with David Chase who created "The Sopranos," the hugely influential HBO drama series which was memorable and innovative from start to finish - especially the finish.

But let's begin at the beginning. When "The Sopranos" premiered on January 10, 1999, telling the story of a mob boss who visits a psychiatrist, it was on the heels of a movie that had just approached a similar subject but as a comedy - "Analyze This," starring Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro. And while "The Sopranos" could be outrageously funny at times, this HBO drama series was taking the same idea very seriously.

In the opening episode, Lorraine Bracco was introduced as Dr. Melfi who greets a reluctant new patient, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, played by a relatively unknown but supremely talented actor named James Gandolfini. And right away, the pacing and the dialogue let it be known that "The Sopranos" was something truly different - not only for how its characters spoke and what they said but for what was left unsaid.


LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) My understanding from Dr. Cusamano, your family physician, is that you collapsed - possibly a panic attack. You were unable to breathe.

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) They said it was a panic attack 'cause all the blood work and the neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) You don't agree that you had a panic attack?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano, sighing).

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) How are you feeling now?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Good. Fine. Back at work.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) What line of work are you in?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Waste management consultant. Look, it's impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) Any thoughts at all on why you blacked out?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I don't know - stress, maybe.

BIANCULLI: As creator David Chase outlined, "The Sopranos" was kind of like a mafia version of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The show's central protagonist was followed both at work and at home with lots of characters populating both places. Tony Soprano's work was mostly illegal. And his work family was his crime family, where even the closest of family members could surprise and disappoint as in this scene in which Tony reveals to fellow gangster Paulie Walnuts, played by Tony Sirico, that a member of their inner circle has been talking to the feds.


GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) He's wearing a wire.

TONY SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) Who?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Pussy.

SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) Oh, get the [explicative] out of here. Our Pussy?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I don't know how long.

SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) Are you sure about this, Tony?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Ninety percent - not enough to do what needs to be done.

SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) Oh, Jesus. Tony, I'm dreaming here.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Get used to it. I've been walking into wars all week. I'll do it. He's my responsibility.

SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) Tony, you waited a long time for the stripes. This is one of the perks. I'll do it.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) We need to be 110 percent sure. I want you to see it. I want you to see that [explicative] wire strapped on his body. I want you to see it. You hear me? I want you to see it. Otherwise, all bets are off. You understand? This is our friend we're talking about here. You say it. You understand?

SIRICO: (As Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) I understand.

BIANCULLI: So that's Tony at work. And at home, things are just as tense. He has a wife, two kids and a very overbearing mother. And all of them have lots of attitude. As "The Sopranos" began and developed, the three most important supporting characters in Tony's life were women - his therapist, his mother and his wife. The wife Carmela was played by Edie Falco. We'll hear Terry's interview with Falco in the second half of today's show. She played a no-nonsense prison guard on HBO's "Oz," the Tom Fontana drama that had premiered two years before, paving the way for "The Sopranos." And she was no-nonsense as Carmela, too. When Tony took Carmela out to dinner and began to confide in her, she moved her wine glass closer to him for a reason.


GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Carmela, there's something I got to confess. What are you doing?

EDIE FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Getting my wine in position to throw in your damn face.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You're always with the drama.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) You go ahead and confess already, please. Get it over with.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I'm on Prozac.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Oh. Oh, my God.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I've been seeing a therapist.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Oh, my God. I think that's great. I think that's so wonderful. I think that's so gutsy.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) All right, take it easy.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) But I just think that's very, very wonderful.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) What, did you think I was Hannibal Lecter before or something?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) I just think it's great. Psychology doesn't address the soul. That's something else, but this is a start. This is something. Oh, I'm going to shut up now. I'll shut up now.

BIANCULLI: Their relationship stayed central throughout the series and provided many of its best and most intense scenes. But the other key relationship between Tony and his mother, Livia, was cut short early on when the actress playing her, the great Nancy Marchand, died unexpectedly. But while Tony's mother was around, she always was a major source of drama and tension.


GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) The point is, I talked to Mrs. DiCaprio over there. And she said she's got a corner suite available with a woods view. It's available now, but it's going to go fast.

NANCY MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Of course it's available. Somebody died.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, ma, you got to stop. You've got to stop with this black, poison cloud all the time 'cause I can't take it anymore.

MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Oh, poor you.

BIANCULLI: Yet nothing about "The Sopranos," neither its gangster scenes nor its family squabbles, made as much impact as the abrupt, unexpected ending to the show's final episode. It has established itself by now as one of the most famous finales in the history of television. Did Tony die when that last episode suddenly cut to black and the music stopped? Many people think so, but I think they're wrong. I think Tony went on living and worrying, but we just weren't witness to it anymore. David Chase just snipped the tape, like the Beatles ended "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" at the end of side one of "Abbey Road."

In between the opening therapy session and the abrupt end to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," "The Sopranos" changed television in several measurable ways. By making the central character more of a bad guy than a hero, it paved the way for Vic Mackey in FX's "The Shield," Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad" and every other conflicted, complicated TV character since. One of the writers on "The Sopranos," Matthew Weiner, even went on to develop his own conflicted central character in AMC's "Mad Men."

Also, other TV shows paid more attention to their choice of music after "The Sopranos." TV showrunners had even more clout, and it became more accepted for series to produce fewer episodes per season and often to take more time off between seasons. And in the shows themselves, sudden deaths and unexplained twists became more common. "The Sopranos" after one season was the first cable drama to be nominated for an Emmy as outstanding drama series and five years later was the first cable series to win in that category. TV is better - much better because "The Sopranos" premiered 20 years ago.

In 2000, Terry interviewed David Chase at the end of the second season of "The Sopranos" and just days after the death of actress Nancy Marchand. Terry played a clip that day with Tony, played by James Gandolfini, sitting alone at night in his kitchen having a drink as his daughter Meadow walks in. She's played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler.


JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Why are you sitting in the dark?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I don't know. I like the dark. Sit.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) I got to go online.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, come on. Sit for a minute. Come on. So what's going on?

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) With what?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Whatever. I don't know (laughter). What's going on?

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) I just told you - a chatroom. Is that it?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You know I love you, right, Med?

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Dad...

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) No, don't dad me. Come on. I want to know. Do you know that I love you?

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Yes, I know that you love me.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) 'Cause your mother doesn't think I love you enough.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) And you listen to her?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Everything I do and everything I've done and everything I will do - it's all for you and your brother, you know that?

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) I think you should go to bed.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I mean, I tell people you're like your mother, but you're all me. Nothing gets by you. And I know you think I'm a hypocrite.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) I'm going to bed.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah, all right. Go ahead.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Dad, why don't you go to bed?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I'm going to finish my drink.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) OK. Goodnight.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Goodnight, baby.

SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Sometimes we're all hypocrites.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Goodnight, baby.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Well, you're so lucky to have found in James Gandolfini someone who has such an interesting face to watch. And his face is kind of mercurial. I mean, although, I'm sure he's trying not to betray what he's thinking, you can see what he's thinking on his face. And sometimes, he looks very weak and vulnerable. And sometimes, he's incredibly cold-blooded-looking. You've cast at the center of this series someone who is a very charismatic actor. But he's not a leading man kind of looking actor. He's got a pot belly, receding hairline, pudgy face. It's not Al Pacino.

DAVID CHASE: No. I - if the - it's - I always go for the actor. If the actor who came in to read for this part had been Cary Grant and it had worked, I probably would have said, fine. Let's do that. But we didn't. What really - we were blessed enough to have happen is that James Gandolfini came through our door. And I honestly mean this. Without Jim Gandolfini, there is no "Sopranos." There's no Tony Soprano. That's why the whole thing, I think, is so identifiable to so many people because he just is so human. And people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him despite the heinous things he's doing on screen. And how...

GROSS: There's something very average-guy-looking about him.

CHASE: Oh, it's more than that. I think - I don't think he is that average. I think there's a - I think he's a very, very sensitive - hyper-sensitive man. And I think he reflects his environment in a very, very rarified way. And he comes off as the regular Joe, you know, but that's - but I think what's going on there is you have a very, very extremely emotional person and sensitive person. And that's what Tony Soprano has become as a result of him.

GROSS: Edie Falco plays the role of Carmela. What did you tell Edie Falco about the character of Carmela after you cast her?

CHASE: Nothing, absolutely nothing - just comes in, does her work.

GROSS: Was Carmela...

CHASE: No direction, honest to God - no direction, no nothing.

GROSS: Well, when you...

CHASE: That's the case with most of these actors. There's very little directing going on.

GROSS: When you wrote the character of Carmela, Tony's wife, did you base it on any of the people who you knew from the old neighborhood where you grew up? - because you grew up in the same township that "The Sopranos" is set in.

CHASE: Right. Right. But it...

GROSS: When I say town, I should say...

CHASE: When you say the old neighborhood, I think people probably get the idea of sort of, like, stoops and three-story, you know, brownstone houses. I grew up in the suburbs. And that's where "The Sopranos" takes place. Were there people in my town like that? I guess, actually, when I think about it, I think she reminds me somewhat of some of my cousins.

GROSS: In what way?

CHASE: Very direct - they'll tell you exactly what's on their mind. My cousin Diana was a very - not - I'm thinking about this for the first time. You asked me this. I've never thought about this before. I had a cousin, Diana Sposato, who was much older than me, actually. She was a contemporary of my mother, but she was my cousin. She was my first cousin. She had this kind of (laughter) - she was tough. And she had this kind of world weariness about her. At the same time, she was a great mother and extremely capable, sharp woman. But she - you could not push her. You know, if you did, you'd hear about it. She'd come back at you.

BIANCULLI: David Chase speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from the year 2000 with David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos." The influential HBO drama series premiered 20 years ago this week.

GROSS: It seems to me that "The Sopranos" started off with a little bit more comedy and that it's become just more tragic for the characters as time goes on.

CHASE: I know. People have said that, and I didn't realize that. I don't see it that way, so it's really difficult.

GROSS: You don't see it that way.

CHASE: I don't. There was - we had a plan for Tony's emotional growth or lack of growth throughout the first season. The idea of carry-over from the first season was, OK. Based on what we seem to remember about therapy or know about therapy - of course, it takes much longer than this, and it's what - you get to a point, my parents did this. My parents did that. You're slamming your parents. You're - the shrink is saying, oh, those parents you had. What do you expect? You can't be any better than you are because - and you go through that. And then you get to a point where it's, OK. So your parents were your parents. Now what are you going to do? You know, you're going to - as a shrink once said to me, what are we - what would you like to do? Should we have an auto-da-fe and burn the old lady at the stake? She's your mother. What can you do about it?

So we got to that point in the show. And the second season was to be - was about, actually, Tony realizing that people kept saying to him he was his own worst enemy, that the seeds of his own destruction and his problems were internal, as they are with all of us, really. In the end, you're here. And there's no excuses for who you are. And I thought it was also necessary to remind the audience, this is a mobster. This is a gangster. You may think he's lovable. He's also a very, very scary man.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene between Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, from about three episodes from the end of last season. And this gets a little bit to what you're talking about. This conversation isn't about Tony's mother. It's about who Tony is and the kind of problems he's responsible for of his own volition in, you know, in the work that he's doing and in the crimes that he's committing. So here's Tony with Dr. Melfi.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) Do you know why a shark keeps moving?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) They've got to keep moving or they'll die. They can't breathe or something.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) There's a psychological condition known as alexithymia, common in certain personalities. The individual craves almost ceaseless action, which enables them to avoid acknowledging the abhorrent things they do.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Abhorrent? What certain personalities?

BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) Antisocial personalities.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) My future brother-in-law ran over a guy - no reason. Guy's paralyzed - has to piss into a cathode tube. What happens when these antisocial personalities aren't distracted from the horrible [expletive] they do?

BRACCO: (As Dr. Melfi) They have time to think about their behavior, how what they do affects other people, about feelings of emptiness and self-loathing haunting them since childhood. And they crash.

GROSS: The scene from "The Sopranos" - my guest is the creator and executive producer of the series, David Chase. Where does that scene take us in the development of Tony?

CHASE: Well, it was intended to be building toward some sort of conclusion or some kind of self-awareness on Tony's part that he - that it's no longer - you can no longer blame your parents, your mother. You cannot go through your life or go through therapy just leaning on that crutch all the time - that after a while, it's you. The problem is you. It's strange. As you were playing that scene, I became - I felt - the scene with Melfi - I felt very sorry for Tony Soprano. I actually got choked up. I sort of heard it for the first time because she's not only saying to him, this is what you do to other people. But she's saying to him that underneath there is this just little scared person who just hates himself. And I felt compassion for the guy.

GROSS: Do you ever hear from people who are in the mob and watch the series and comment one way or another?

CHASE: No, not directly. There are people who work on the show in New York who know people who know people who know people. And the word has filtered back through that pipeline that - the first season what we heard was they just were OK. That's all we ever heard. We're OK. But then recently stories were printed about a Jersey crime family who - FBI transcripts came out in which they talked about "The Sopranos." And they felt that "The Sopranos" was based on them, which it isn't.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHASE: I want to be quick to assure them. No, it is not at all. I mean, we make up a lot of this stuff. And it's interesting that it happens to coincide with what they feel is real life.

GROSS: When you are growing up, where there movies that really scared the heck out of you, but you couldn't take your eyes off of them?

CHASE: Oh, of course. Yes. As I said, I was a scaredy kid. And yet horror movies and scary movies to me were - I could not get enough of them. I think a pretty big influence on me was this William Wellman movie "The Public Enemy," which I saw on "Million Dollar Movie" when I was probably 8 or 9. And they'd play it - they would play a movie all week long. And in it, there's this gangster Tom Powers, this - you know, it's the one where Cagney's finally after this life of crime. Actually the mother is very important in that movie too. He's got this sort of sweet little old Irish mother. But after this horrible life of crime and smashing the grapefruit into that woman's face and everything else that, he did he gets shot. And he says, I ain't so tough, and he collapses on his knees.

But at the end of the movie, he's in a hospital. And the rival gang calls this mother's houses and says, we're sending Tom home. And his brother runs up the stairs. He says, Ma, Ma, they're bringing Tom home. And she starts - she puts on this "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" record, and it's playing. And she's making the bed, and she's sort of singing, and feathers are going all over the place. And she's happy. And his brother's all excited that he's coming home. And then there's a knock on the door. And the brother opens the door, and you see Cagney's wrapped up in a blanket, with his head all in bandages from the hospital, tied up like a mummy. And he's dead, and he has dead eyes. And he just sort of topples toward the camera - right into the lens. That's the end of the movie. This was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen. I was scared about this for a month. I could not get that out of my mind.

GROSS: What was it that was so scary?

CHASE: I don't know to this day - just the idea - those people's expectations in the house. It's actually making me kind of sad. I don't know - their expectations of what was going to happen and what really did happen, that they were so happy that he was coming home. And he was dead in such a horrible way - and how he'd wasted his life.

GROSS: Well, David Chase, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHASE: Thank you very much. It's been really great.

BIANCULLI: David Chase speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. After a break, we'll continue our celebration of the 20th anniversary of the premiere of HBO's "The Sopranos" with an interview with the show's leading lady Edie Falco. And culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald will review this weekend's season 3 premiere of HBO's "True Detective" series. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun. Mama always said, you'd be the chosen one. She said, you're one in a million. You've got to burn to shine.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Today we're saluting the hugely influential TV series "The Sopranos," which premiered on HBO 20 years ago this week. We've already heard from the show's creator David Chase, and now we'll listen back to Terry's 2014 interview with Edie Falco, who plays Tony's wife Carmela on "The Sopranos." Since then, she starred on TV as a very different character playing the title role of a drug-addicted health care professional in the Showtime TV series "Nurse Jackie."


GROSS: Jackie and Carmela are both very tough, and they have a real mouth when they need it. But Jackie lives in the world of work. You know, she is a nurse, and she's a very excellent one. And Carmela lived in the world of suburban mobster wives.


FALCO: Right.

GROSS: How did you talk differently in each of those roles - and walk differently? Carmela was almost always wearing heels, and she had that little high-heeled mincing walk that she'd use.

FALCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And Jackie is - like, she is busy at the hospital, and she is, like, striding around.

FALCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You know, so it's really a different walk.

FALCO: Yeah. Well, any woman knows when you put sneakers on, you walk one way. You put heels on. You walk another way. And also Carmela's nails were a whole thing too - that she could never really touch anything. There was always this, you know, minuscule distance between her and everything in her environment. So there was something...

GROSS: Because of those really long nails?

FALCO: Yeah. So I always - that somehow had something - like, when I've looked at it, it seems like my hands were always up, like at the - bent at the elbows, almost like the nails would hit something if she went too close or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FALCO: So that was a big part of it, too, being her - that she was somehow protected by armor from her whole environment in one way or another, you know, internally and externally.

GROSS: Is it a relief not to be dressing in Carmela's clothes but rather...

FALCO: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: ...To just be wearing a blue nursing uniform a lot of the time?

FALCO: Yes. Well, that was another reason for choosing this show, to be honest with you, was the low maintenance version of it 'cause the whole Carmela get-up was very time-consuming. And in the beginning, it was very exciting. And then, you know, whatever, nine years in, I thought I was going to, you know, rip my hair out at the roots. But it was a big part of who she was. But when I - when it came to choosing another - you know, another character to be for awhile, that was a big part. It was also why I cut my hair. I just thought, I just want to get rid of all this stuff. But everything comes in waves. You know, a good number of years into "Nurse Jackie," I thought, I want my hair back.

GROSS: Yeah.

FALCO: So, you know, it's...

GROSS: It's much longer now (laughter).

FALCO: Yes, it is. It is.

GROSS: Why did it take so long to become - to physically become Carmela before the shoot each day?

FALCO: Well, I'm - as far as - I was going to say personal style, but that's - there's actually - there is none of Jackie's. It's...


FALCO: I'm closer to her than Carmela. I'm a very low-maintenance individual myself. So I would go into the trailer on "Sopranos," and I'd be in there for two hours between the hair curling and straightening and pinning and the tons of makeup and the nails to put on and the jewelry. Yeah, it was a hole - and the costume itself. There was a whole way and order in which I had to do these things. I had to put my jewelry on before the nails because then I couldn't put it on without the nails. And I had a dog at the time who was in my trailer while I was playing - while I was on "Sopranos." And she started to choke on a chicken bone, and I panicked. And I stuck my finger in her mouth and realized, I can't reach it because of the nails. I ripped my fingernails off to get my finger down the dog's throat and pull the chicken bone out. It was just one of the many - and she was fine, but it was one of the many issues about having to be this other person.


FALCO: Yeah.

GROSS: So were they fake nails?

FALCO: They were fake nails. I glued them on every day.

GROSS: Oh, right.

FALCO: Yeah.

GROSS: So you and Carmela from "The Sopranos" had similar problems - teenage kids who were rebelling, talking back to you, which I suppose is pretty typical.

FALCO: I mean, well...

GROSS: Yeah.

FALCO: I was going to say Jackie, Carmela and every mother I've ever heard of - yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. And you've both tried - you know, both characters have tried tough love in ways that aren't necessarily very effective.

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: So you have two children, aged 9 and 6. Can you imagine saying any of the things that Jackie or Carmela have said to their teenagers?

FALCO: I would like to say no, but the things that go on in parenting I have been shocked by (laughter). My own reactions to things, my children's reactions to my reactions - they kind of are otherworldly. There is very little that brings out more deep-seated stuff than the parent-child relationship, I've found. You don't even know what's going to come out of your mouth when you feel as helpless as you sometimes do in the face of a - you know, a smart kid.

GROSS: What's an example of something that you've said that's really surprised you?

FALCO: Oh, gosh. This is going to be terrible, but I'll tell you. My son was - had an issue with coming into my bed. This is some years ago now. And he kept coming into my bed in the middle of the night when I'm half asleep. I was working at the time, so I was getting four or five hours of sleep. And he came into my bed. And I think the words were, if you don't get (laughter) out of my bed, I will throw you down the stairs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FALCO: My son looked at me wide-eyed and went back into bed. And then in the morning, he said, did you say, last night, that you were going to throw me down the stairs? And I - I was, like, blushing. I said, Anderson, I said that to you; and I cannot believe I said - it has become now something we joke about. And every once in awhile, he's like, what; are you going to throw me down the stairs?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FALCO: I'm like, Anderson, I am sorry; I'm not responsible for what I say at 3 in the morning when I'm not getting sleep. So anyway, yes, it's really insane what happens under dire circumstances, lack of sleep and, you know, kids who want their way. So anyway, I'm not proud of that. And I'm, you know, deeply working on it, let's just say.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Edie Falco speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Edie Falco. She co-starred as Carmela Soprano, the wife of Tony Soprano, in HBO's "The Sopranos," which premiered 20 years ago this week.


GROSS: You know what I was wondering? One of the defining traits of Carmela, Tony Soprano's wife, is that she is in such denial. I mean, she knows what she wants to know when she needs to know it. And when she doesn't need to know it and wants to deny it, she doesn't know it. So she really knows that Tony is, you know, the head of the mob in his part of Jersey.

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: But she knows just - she doesn't know the specific details of, like, who he's beaten up or who he's ordered killed or who...

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: ...He's extorting. But, you know, she gets the gist of it. But, you know, she acts very innocent about it unless she...

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: ...Wants to intimidate somebody. And in that case, like, her husband's Tony Soprano; do you know who he is?

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: But anyways, I was wondering if you almost protected yourself from watching some episodes so that you wouldn't know...

FALCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Or Carmela wouldn't know about the actual acts of brutality that...


GROSS: ...Tony was responsible for or, you know, the person himself who was doing the killing or the...

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: ...Or the brutal...

FALCO: I had never thought of that. That's actually highly possible. I was aware more about - I didn't want to see him with other women.

GROSS: Really?

FALCO: That was the part that I found harder to - that Edie found harder to see. There was no way - I couldn't let it get into my system in a way that would bother me. It gets very complicated this stuff - you know, this whole acting stuff. And not just - it's not just a play or a movie. This went on for 10 years. So there is this alter ego thing about what actually goes on that the character-slash-me - that I don't know about. So yeah, I think on some level, to protect myself from the other women, I didn't watch it so much. But I've had less of a hard time about the people he was killing, which I'm sure is more for me and my shrink to talk about. But we'll get to that.

GROSS: I think Carmela might've been that way.

FALCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Well, you couldn't...

FALCO: That's right.

GROSS: You couldn't watch any of it because Tony was with a woman in just about every episode (laughter).

FALCO: (Laughter) Hey, I still haven't watched them, so don't tell me.

GROSS: (Laughter) You're in for some heartbreak (laughter).

FALCO: I'm still in - (laughter) you know, whatever, 10 years later, I'm still in denial.

GROSS: Well, your characters used to fight a lot. And I thought I'd play an example of one of the fights. And this is a session, your first session, with Tony's therapist, Dr. Melfi, who's played by Lorraine Bracco. And you're there with Tony to, you know, talk about his anxiety attacks. And of course that ends up in a big fight. (Laughter) So here's the scene.


BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) Anthony's attacks, how do they make you feel?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Well, concerned, of course, and helpless - little frustrated, maybe.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) With your inability to help him?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) To tell the truth, I was referring to your inability to help him.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) She has helped me. What are you talking about?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) You've been coming here for three years, Tony. You still pass out on a regular basis.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) I understand your frustration. Did Anthony share with you any of our insights about his last panic attack?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I told you, remember? The gabagool and my mother when I was a little kid.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Right. Yes.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) Do you think that there's anything in the present family dynamic that could serve as a trigger, something in your dialoguing, perhaps?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Excuse me?

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) I don't really know you that well. We're trying to get to root causes.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Like, maybe you do things, you know, that have some effect on me?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Oh, really?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) What? People affect each other in life.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Oh, I get it. Is this how it works? You can't get any answers out of him, so you start looking for someone else to point the finger at?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) She's not saying anything. Why you getting so defensive?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) You know what, Tony? Maybe you should explore your own behavior. Maybe you pass out because you're guilty over something. Maybe the fact that you stick your [expletive] into anything with a pulse - you ever thought of exploring that as a root cause?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Very nice. That's very nice.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Mm-hm.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I told you months ago I broke it off with that Russian person, right?

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) It's incredible. It's like people who smoke their whole lives, and then they sue the cigarette companies when they get cancer.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You know, you agreed to come here. Oh, forget it. This is [expletive] ridiculous.

FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Right, just sit there - silence, anger. And then you pass out, and you blame the rest of the [expletive] world.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah, I love you too.

FALCO: Holy mackerel.

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Sopranos" (laughter)...


GROSS: ...With my guest, Edie Falco, and James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco. What was it like for you to listen to that?

FALCO: Oh, my gosh, so bizarre. It's like another life, another lifetime, a lifetime ago. I had a million thoughts. But I forgot how good the writing is and how funny it is and how much dimension each of the characters have. And, you know, the sound of each of the - each voice is so familiar and so kind of not forgotten, but certainly far away. So it was a big deal.

GROSS: You were saying earlier that when you would have a fight with one of - a fight in character with one of your children on "The Sopranos," when the scene was over, you'd give them a big hug just so that they knew the difference between your real feelings about them and Carmela's anger at their character.

FALCO: Right.

GROSS: So when you would have a big fight with Tony, which you would do frequently on "The Sopranos," would you and James Gandolfini express your genuine appreciation and respect for each other afterwards?

FALCO: (Laughter) No (laughter).

GROSS: Not necessary because you're adults?

FALCO: Not at all. We're adults. Yeah, we're adults. And also - I said before also that Jim and I were - we didn't know each other all that well, really. We didn't socialize much. And I - it was not on purpose, I don't think, or at least not consciously so. But - and I can only speak for myself, but I think because of that or maybe because I wanted that to be the case, is he really existed only as Tony to me, so - because there wasn't really a lot of information about Jim, the guy who showed up to play Tony.

So, you know, it - a lot of it felt pretty real. And to sort of jump back to our real people at the end of a scene would have felt less satisfying for me. You know, we pretty much were husband and wife when we were on that set, and it made an exquisitely satisfying acting experience for sure and, you know, world experience. But yeah, the fact that we were very much Tony and Carmela.

GROSS: Were you particularly sad when he died that you never got to know him as a man?

FALCO: You know, that's a complicated question. Gosh, I don't know. I mean, I love Jim very much, but we both had very, very full lives on different sides of the country. And the nature of this business that I'm in is so bizarre that you can have that kind of close, however pretend relationship with an actor and then not really have them in your life much at all afterwards. I think it's more the rule than not that, you know, you move on to another project, and those people become your family. It's sort of an odd - it's definitely an odd career choice for someone who, you know - like anybody, who wants connection.

GROSS: What was your audition like for "The Sopranos?"

FALCO: It was at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, which I think is gone now, I guess. And I was very busy at the time. And I was told that it was an audition for a thing called "Sopranos" (ph), and I figured it was about singers, but I would just go in and do it anyway.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FALCO: I went in there (laughter), and it was David Chase and - oh, gosh - a couple other people. Johnny Ventimiglia, who ended up playing Artie Bucco, was reading the part of Tony Soprano. And, I mean...

GROSS: Artie Bucco has the Italian restaurant that they hang out in.

FALCO: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

FALCO: Exactly. And he was reading the part of Tony in the audition. And a couple other people were there, but I don't remember quite so well. And I went in, and I just did exactly what I knew this character should be in my mind, from my estimation, also knowing that there's no way I would get cast because I was not the stereotypical Italian-American-looking actress. And I knew who was, and I thought - but there's something very powerful about going in to just do it for the heck of it.

You know, and there's of course a huge lesson in there. You know, life is - the pain in life is contingent upon one's expectations, for the most part. So if I went in there just to sort of enjoy the day, which is what I did, you tend to show your best self. So anyway, what I was was calm and relaxed.

And so I did this audition, and then he asked me to read some other scene. And I left, and that was the end of that. And I got a call, I think, like, that day or the next day, and from Meg Mortimer, my agent at the time, who said, yeah. They want you to do this thing. And I thought, oh, wow. And it was a monstrous sum of money for me at the time. And all I thought was, I cannot believe I can pay off my student loan with one check - with this one check that I'm going to get. It was like - I broke out in a sweat at the size of that relief because, you know, money - a constant source of anguish in my life. A huge piece of it was just eaten up by this check I was going to get, which was - of course, there was this great job, which was just a pilot at the time. But, you know, money for a struggling actor is a very, very big deal - not news to anybody, I'm sure.

GROSS: So you grew up on Long Island in New York. Describe your neighborhood.

FALCO: Well, I grew up on the South Shore originally, down in West Islip. And the neighborhood was all kids my age. And as I have said recently - that I don't remember having shoes on for much of my childhood. I was a real tomboy. I was always beating up the neighborhood boys and riding my bike and trying to show off and climbing trees. And I was always cut up, had, you know, scabs on my knees. I was a real tough little girl, I guess. But the - I remember it being like a big, giant, safe place because at every home was one of my friends - a kid that I walked to school with or spent the summers building tree forts with or whatever we used to do. That was until high school, I guess. And after middle school, I moved to Northport, N.Y., which was a stunning town on the water.

GROSS: So earlier, you said you were a goody two-shoes when you were young.

FALCO: Yeah. Well, I was - I didn't do any bad stuff. I didn't - I wasn't...

GROSS: You were just beating up the boys in the neighborhood (laughter).

FALCO: Yeah. Well, they would - they said - all right. They'd say - what was the expression? I call you out. And it was like, you want to call me out, you're going to get it. And I sent one kid to the hospital. I pushed him down really hard, and gravel went into his knee. He never bothered me again. I'll tell you that much.

GROSS: (Laughter) So...

FALCO: But yeah. But I was goody two-shoes.

GROSS: So you do have some really tough - (laughter) tough inner core there.

FALCO: Yeah, I suppose I do. I suppose I do. Yeah, from my early, early days - but I also did my school work. And I, you know, was a good kid. I never - I wasn't particularly rebellious at all, actually.

GROSS: Well, Edie Falco, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FALCO: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Edie Falco speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. She co-starred in "The Sopranos," the HBO series that premiered 20 years ago this week on January 10, 1999. "The Sopranos" ran for six seasons. Its final episode was in June 2007.


GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) Oh, I went ahead and ordered something for the table.


BIANCULLI: Coming up - culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald reviews Sunday's new season of the HBO series "True Detective." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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