‘The Sopranos’ Icon Landed His Role Against Doctor’s Orders

HBO/Everett Collection
HBO/Everett Collection

The below is an excerpt from ‘Too Funny for Words: Backstage Tales from Broadway, Television, and the Movies’ by Jerry Adler, which is available from May 21.

I was stricken with terrible stomach pains and went to my doctor in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. I wound up with gastric problems and required an operation. The recuperation was pleasant, Joan flew back, and I lay there, bandaged heavily, just as David Chase called. Alisa had given David my number but didn’t tell him where I was. He was quite friendly, we chatted about our days on Northern Exposure. Frankly I had no memory of seeing David Chase there, though I knew he had written some of the episodes I had filmed.

Finally, he got around to why he was calling. He was doing a pilot named The Sopranos, and there was a cameo he wanted me to do. I assumed it was a rabbi or a Jewish character because that kind of character was the basis of our relationship. I had no desire to do another Jewish person for fear of being typecast, but at my age that’s ridiculous. His insistence was very effective, and it was an offer. I agreed. David said he would call the office and make a deal.

Before he hung up, he said, “see you Saturday.”

I was bandaged in a hospital bed, but I wouldn’t tell him that, I just said, “I do have a problem you should know about.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I don’t sing.”

He explained it wasn’t a musical show, and that it was about a family in the New Jersey Mafia. The muscle of the group was Tony Soprano, hence the name. I had no idea how you leave a hospital in such a hurry. My surgeon, Daniel Popowich, advised against it, but I was out of there no matter what. I promised him I would be back the same day. He finally gave in and fixed me up with fresh bandages.

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That Friday night I strolled out like I was a visitor, in my street clothes. I spent the night in Joan’s apartment where the show’s van would pick me up; I didn’t want anyone to know I was still a hospital patient. They did pick me up at the address I had given the staff. We went to a large parking area that had been roped off, mainly to keep gawkers away, though I didn’t see any. After a quick greeting with David Chase, I relaxed in my dressing room van, learning the dialogue.

All I had were the pages for the day. I had no idea what the subject was but after reading it through (two pages, mostly descriptive) I got the drift: I was threatening someone about the money this man owed Tony Soprano. Remark- ably, the costumes laid out in the van were loose; a gymnasium-type sweatsuit and sneakers. It was exactly the kind of outfit that would hide the bandages around my stomach.

Later when I questioned David about the casual attire, he explained that he saw Herman as a lawyer who spends a great deal of time lounging around. With that exchange I learned my character’s name and profession.

In my parlance, the scene was a quickie. Me and a character named Big Pussy, played by Vince Pastore, a well-known acting teacher and an old friend of mine from my Broadway days, had this scene on a bridge over a deep threatening gorge, with the obviously frightened guy. We did the scene a number of times, at different angles, and at no time was it ever discussed the rather large paunch Herman had.

There was a second piece to do. David said the scene was scheduled for Thursday of next week, a perfect four days away. I went back to the hospital: I told the teamster driver I was visiting a friend. The recuperation went well, and I was released on Monday, giving me plenty of time to work that week. The script was waiting for me at Joan’s apartment, and it was a beaut. This was no cops and robbers junket, it was an odd mix of good and evil, life and death, and a fresh view inside the daily life of criminals and their easy violence. On top of that, David Chase brilliantly adds a female psychiatrist to whom Tony can unload in spite of the danger that someone will learn of this weakness. It was a great dramatic twist that could make this no ordinary crime show.

Jerry Adler book cover

I was driven on Thursday to a raunchy strip club in New Jersey that they had named Bada Bing! I had learned the scene, read the script, and now knew what I was talking about. The scene was set in a small room overlooking the dance floor below with a few customers hanging around ogling the naked women, who were nonchalantly hanging onto their poles. The rest of the cast was already there, and we greeted each other then waited for David. They had been filming almost two weeks, so they knew each other and proceeded to fit me in.

Michael Imperioli was younger than I thought when I read the script and James Gandolfini was a surprise. He wasn’t an obscure actor, nor was he known. He was stocky, almost bald, and nowhere near what you would call a leading-man type. What he did have were the most searching, intelligent eyes I ever saw. Not handsome, but hugely charismatic.

Earlier, when I read the full script, I learned why David was so hell bent to have me play Herman. Herman was an old friend of Tony’s father who was in business with Herman, a Jew, which was frowned on in those days. In the scene he reports that Mahaffey has no money and has no wiggle-room to get it. Herman suggests a resolution which Tony elaborates on.

Tony then happily congratulates Herman, “You old fucking Jew. No wonder my old man kept you around so long.”

It shows how much Tony leans on Herman as he messes with Herman’s hair. The scene was pleasant to perform. I had a good take on everyone and the performances were first rate. Everything went beautifully. Handshakes all around, and well-wishes for the future. I paid my gratitude to David for thinking of me. When I got down to the main floor, one of the naked dancers shook my hand and told me that Manhattan Murder Mystery was her favorite movie.

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