‘The Sopranos’: How Jason Alexander Helped Al Sapienza Land His Role

It was quite a winding road for several actors who landed major parts on The Sopranos. In some cases, a recurring role on the show turned out to be the biggest break in their career. That happened with Al Sapienza, the New York actor who portrayed Mikey Palmice in season 1.

Sapienza had been in the business for nearly two decades prior to playing Mikey Palmice. Though he’d landed parts on major TV series (Melrose Place, 1994) and big-budget movies (Godzilla, 1998), he never had that one star-making appearance.

That changed after his recurring Sopranos role. “When I got that job, I knew I was going to work for the rest of my life,” Sapienza said on the Talking Sopranos podcast. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.”

But though Sapienza impressed David Chase with his interpretation of Mikey Palmice, it was pure chance that Sapienza got the audition in the first place. It began when he met Seinfeld star Jason Alexander earlier in the decade.

Al Sapienza got his ‘Sopranos’ audition after reading for Jason Alexander’s film

Jason Alexander next toa camera directing the film 'Just Looking' in 1999
CIRCA 1999: Director Jason Alexander on the set of ‘Just Looking’ | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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After growing up in New York and attending NYU, Sapienza moved to L.A. in the early ’80s for work. Though it was a grind, he kept at it in L.A. for the following decade. In ’92, he found himself working in a small theatrical production of a play called Misconduct Allowed.

In an adjoining playhouse, Alexander was working in a production of Truman. Sapienza and Alexander would see each other in the dressing rooms between performances, and the two became friends. Later that decade, that relationship paid off for Sapienza.

It began with the small part he played in Godzilla. After he went to the premiere in New York, Sapienza got a call about Alexander’s new film titled Cherry Pink. Alexander was wrapping up Seinfeld, and this film was to be the first picture he directed after playing George Costanza on the hit show.

While Sapienza was happy to have an audition in New York, he knew after reading for the part that he wasn’t going to be in Alexander’s movie. But then he got a better break: Cherry Pink’s casting director asked if he wanted to audition for a mob series on HBO.

Alexander’s casting director was also casting ‘The Sopranos’

Al Sapienza speaks to press at Comic-Con in 2014
Al Sapienza | Evans Vestal Ward/Syfy

By the time Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe began casting Cherry Pink (retitled and released as Just Looking, 1999), the pair had made a name for themselves in independent films. They’d done Cafe Society, Basquiat, and Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge.

David Chase loved Trees Lounge and hired the team of Walken and Jaffe to cast The Sopranos for that reason. So when Sapienza didn’t work out for Cherry Pink, Walken had a wild card up her sleeve.

“It was sheer luck,” Sapienza recalled on Talking Sopranos. “[Walken] told me, ‘We’re having trouble casting this role.'” Apparently, they wanted someone who didn’t scream New York mobster. Sapienza, who’d spent years in L.A. working to drop his New York accent, worked out just fine.

After he got the role, Sapienza hope he could stay on the show — even after writers painted Mikey Palmice into a corner. Sapienza didn’t go quietly, though. He did his best to convince Chase to keep Mikey alive. But there are some problems a writer can’t fix.