HBO’s President Wanted This ‘Sopranos’ Episode to End Without Its Key Murder
Imagine a Tony Soprano who didn’t occasionally take matters into his own hands. While his soldiers made collections and killed the occasional problem gangster, Tony (James Gandolfini) would simply negotiate deals, see his therapist, and deal with his wife and children.
In this world, Tony Soprano wouldn’t really seem like a gangster at all. He’d be more of a businessman with dangerous associates. Early on in the great run of The Sopranos, HBO president Chris Albrecht saw Tony more in that light — so much so that he didn’t want him to commit a pivotal murder.
“College,” which aired as Episode Five of the first season, featured Tony taking Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a tour of universities while Carmela (Edie Falco) stayed home with the flu. Along the way, Tony runs into Febby Petrulio, former associate now in witness protection.
Tony knows he has to take Petrulio down, Meadow or not. If Albrecht had his way, Tony wouldn’t have done the murder and sent the series on its way to history. HBO’s president actually thought the killing would “ruin” Tony in the audience’s eyes.
Albrecht believed the murder would ‘lose the audience’ the show had just captured.
Albrecht, a veteran agent and TV executive with Hall of Fame credentials, saw a dilemma coming for The Sopranos that many of his colleagues would have agreed about in the late ’90s. After grabbing hold of the audience in the first four episodes, he saw the murder of the rat as trouble for the show.
Brett Martin told this story in his behind-the-scenes work, Difficult Men (2013). According to Martin, Chase only received major pushback from HBO on two occasions — first on the show’s title and second on the subject of the strangulation scene in “College.”
In Martin’s telling, Sopranos creator David Chase was surprised to hear Albrecht’s objection. “You’ve created one of the most compelling characters on TV in the last 20 years and you’re going to ruin him in the fifth episode!” he told Chase. In reply, Chase argued it would be the opposite.
“I think we’d lose the audience if he didn’t kill that guy,” Chase said. “What kind of mobster is that?” After a heated exchange, Albrecht let Chase run with the murder Tony commits with his bare hands. But he got a concession.
Chase agreed to make it seem like Tony had no choice.
In the world of ’90s TV executives, a show’s hero couldn’t sadistically kill a man and remain sympathetic to his audience. So, even though Chase kept the scene in “College,” he agreed to soften the blow a bit.
To achieve that, Chase wrote in the scene with Petrulio hiring two junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. In this way of thinking, Tony would have to save the life of his daughter by killing Petrulio. (Meanwhile, Petrulio would be a rat who continued dealing drugs in witness protection.)
So Tony does the murder because he had to and HBO executives went to bed feeling better about the show. As for the apparent satisfaction Tony takes in the murder, well, that was something everyone would get used to in the coming years. And the audience never did stop watching.