How 'The Sopranos' had real life links to the Mafia

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  • James Gandolfini
    James Gandolfini
    American actor (1961-2013)
  • David Chase
    American screenwriter, director and producer
  • Steven Van Zandt
    Steven Van Zandt
    American musician
  • Tony Sirico
    Tony Sirico
    American film and television actor
The cast of
The cast of "The Sopranos." Image via HBO.

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

On Jan. 10, 1999, the world was introduced to Tony Soprano, the captain of a New Jersey-based crime family suffering from panic attacks. For the next eight years, millions of viewers would tune in to HBO to follow the complex anti-hero on David Chase’s hit-series “The Sopranos.”

Praise for “The Sopranos” came quickly from both critics and audiences alike. Following its first season, the series was declared the “greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.”  

The show, which received critical and audience acclaim, has been touted as one of the best television shows of all time, earning 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards during its run.

We’ve gathered some little known facts about one of the most beloved TV series of all time that all true fans of “The Sopranos” should know.

The show was initially pitched as a film

Fans almost missed out on the chance to spend eight years with Tony Soprano. Initially, David Chase’s idea for the story was a feature film specifically following Tony’s strained and complex relationship with his mother, Livia Soprano.

However, Chase’s manager, Lloyd Braun, convinced him to consider TV by telling him, “I want you to know that we believe that you have inside you a great television series."

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano.  (Photo by HBO)
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano. (Photo by HBO)
Edie Falco, James Gandolfini, Robert Iler and Jamie Lynn Sigler. (Image via HBO)
Edie Falco, James Gandolfini, Robert Iler and Jamie Lynn Sigler. (Image via HBO)

James Gandolfini wasn’t Chase’s first choice for the role of Tony Soprano

Although it's difficult to imagine anyone but Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, he wasn’t Chase’s first choice for the role. According to reports, Chase wanted Steven Van Zandt to take on the lead role, since he wanted a “non-actor” to star in the series. However, having never acted before, Zandt thought the role should go to an actor with more experience but accepted the role as Sivio Dante, Tony’s second-in-command.

‘The Sopranos’ hit too close to home for some Mafia members

Screenwriter Terrence Winter revealed that both FBI agents and organized crime members were fans of the show.

“They would listen to the wiretaps from that weekend, and it was Mob guys talking about The Sopranos,” Winter said of the FBI in an interview with Vanity Fair.

Sometimes, the dialogue and storylines would ring so familiar to mafia members, they became suspicious that the show was stealing ideas from them.

“We would hear back that real wiseguys used to think that we had somebody on the inside,” Winter told Vanity Fair.

"The Sopranos" stars James Gandolfini, Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico. (Image via Allstar/HBO/Sportsphoto Ltd)
"The Sopranos" stars James Gandolfini, Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico. (Image via Allstar/HBO/Sportsphoto Ltd)

Mafia members would contact the cast with tips

Following the pilot, James Gandolfini was contacted by a mafia insider with one piece of wardrobe advice: A Don doesn’t wear shorts.

Other cast members were frequently approached by fans who belonged to crime families, offering some tips on how to make their performances more realistic.

“A guy came up to me — I had been told by someone who would know that he was a real Mafia guy— and told me he could demonstrate the real way to strangle someone with a piece of piano wire,” Michael Imperioli who played Christopher Moltisanty said in a 2019 interview. “He was kind of joking around, but it was still a little scary.”

The cast of
The cast of "The Sopranos." (Image via HBO)

Several cast members reportedly had ties to organized crime

Tony Sirico’s character Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri was without a doubt a “Sopranos” fan favourite. However, many fans might be surprised to learn prior to his role, Sirico grew up in Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn had ties to the Colombo crime family. Between 1960 and 1970, Sirico was arrested 28 times for assault, robbery and more.

"I was a pistol-packing guy," Sirico told the Los Angeles Times. "The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun — and I had three of 'em on me. They'd ask why I was carrying and I'd say I live in a bad neighbourhood…It was true. In our neighbourhood, if you weren't carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season.”

Sirico reportedly signed on for the role of Gualtieri under one condition: That his character never rats out his crew.

“I come from the streets,” Sirico told Deadline. “I been in the Army, I been everywhere. I wouldn’t play a rat if you put a gun to my head and if you did put a gun to my head, you better empty it.

Other cast members who allegedly had ties to organized crime include Michael Squicciarini (Frank ‘Big Frank’ Cippolina) and Tony Darrow (Larry Boy Barese).

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