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When David Chase was casting his new show The Sopranos (1999-2007), he was well aware of associations viewers would make with Goodfellas (1990). That had to contribute to Lorraine Bracco getting the role of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as opposed to, say, a mob wife. And it gave Chase pause about casting other Goodfellas actors.

Chase acknowledged the conundrum in 2010 comments to GQ. “The challenge was to make a good mob series without stumbling over the [Goodfellas] cast at every turn,” Chase said. “Because they were all so good, and they were all around.”

Chase faced that problem right away with the casting of Corrado “Junior” Soprano. Before Dominic Chianese landed the role, Chase had Frank Vincent read for it. But Chase thought (correctly) viewers would see Billy Batts (not to mention Joe Pesci’s Casino cohort) when they saw Vincent. And if Ray Liotta had joined the cast, Chase would have had the same problem.

David Chase spoke to Ray Liotta about playing Ralph Cifaretto on ‘The Sopranos’

Joe Pantoliano smiles in character as Ralph Cifaretto seated at the dinner table
Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto acts in a scene in “The Sopranos” (Year 3). | HBO

It doesn’t appear Liotta was ever seriously in consideration for Sopranos lead Tony Soprano (unsourced reports aside). The final three for that role came down to Steven Van Zandt, Michael Rispoli, and James Gandolfini. And all three ended up playing big roles in season 1.

As for Liotta, Chase told GQ he contacted the Goodfellas star about playing Ralph Cifaretto prior to season 3. Around that time (2000), Liotta was playing major film roles. He’d done Copland a few years earlier and had played the lead in Paul Schrader’s Forever Mine in ’99.

Liotta had also done television. In HBO’s ’98 production of The Rat Pack, Liotta played Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra. But for whatever reason he didn’t return to the premium cable network to play Ralphie on The Sopranos.

Sopranos producers ended up having a tough time finding their Ralphie. In the beginning, before Joe Pantoliano took his Emmy-winning turn as Ralph, the part belonged to the actor who played Eugene Pontecorvo.

Robert Funaro had the Ralph Cifaretto role before Joe Pantoliano

Ray Liotta and Joe Pantoliano pose together in 2014.
Ray Liotta and Joe Pantoliano attend day 1 of the 2014 Nashville Film Festival. | Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

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While you can imagine Liotta fitting nicely in the Ralph Cifaretto role, Pantoliano’s performance as that degenerate character remains one of the series’ highlights. But Chase and his team had originally cast Robert Funaro to play Ralphie.

After Funaro got on the set and began working opposite Gandolfini (Tony), everyone agreed the show would be better off with another actor as Ralph. So the search for Ralph continued and Sopranos writers created Gene Pontecorvo with Funaro in mind.

Looking back, it’s hard to second-guess with any of these casting choices. Pantoliano delivered an extraordinary performance as Ralph, and Funaro came up big as frustrated small-timer Gene Pontecorvo (a man who takes his own life). As for Liotta, Sopranos fans can see him in the show’s prequel due for release in late ’21.