The ‘Sopranos’ Fan Favorite Who Almost Played Tony Instead of James Gandolfini

Once an actor nails down a role, it’s tough to imagine what a film or show would have been like with someone else in the lead. For an example, take The Godfather, which would have been infinitely different had James Caan (not Al Pacino) played the role of Michael Corleone.

As it stands, Pacino crushed it as Michael while Caan delivered as Sonny, and there were plenty of Oscars to go around. Looking back at the casting sessions for The SopranosTV’s great mob epic — you can play a similar game of what ifs.

That’s because David Chase first offered the lead role of Tony Soprano to someone other than James Gandolfini. In fact, they considered the audition to be something of a formality for HBO executives (at least in retrospect).

But once Gandolfini showed up and tapped into the dark side of Tony, Chase had his lead. As for the actor originally meant to play Tony, he ended up sticking around for the entirety of the show as well, playing Silvio Dante.

Steven Van Zandt was Chase’s first choice to play Tony Soprano.

‘The Sopranos ‘ | Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

While it seems nuts that Chase would want a non-actor to play the lead in his magnum opus, it starts to make sense when you hear him tell it. In an oral history published in Vanity Fair in 2012, he said he got the idea because he was a Bruce Springsteen fan from way back.

“I used to listen to music a lot on headphones and look at the LP, and Steven Van Zandt’s face always grabbed me. He had this similarity to Al Pacino in The Godfather,” Chase said. While casting for the Sopranos pilot, Chase happened to catch Van Zandt inducting The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on TV.

“Steven gave the speech. He was very, very funny and magnetic. I said to my wife, ‘That guy has got to be in the show!'” But Chase hadn’t seen Gandolfini audition yet. Once he did, he knew the big man was right to play Tony.

As for Van Zandt, who never acted in anything before, Chase still wanted him to come aboard and told him he could have any other part. That’s when Van Zandt told him about Silvio Dante, a character he’d written a treatment about.

Chase’s instincts about Van Zandt turned out to be correct.

Steve Van Zandt and James Gandolfini act in scene from ‘The Sopranos.’ | Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

While Gandolfini definitely was the man to play Tony Soprano, Chase’s instincts about Van Zandt were spot-on as well. As Tony’s consigliere and the man in charge of the Bada Bing, Van Zandt delivered in every scene he got on The Sopranos.

Obviously, the writers loved him too, as it took until the last episodes for anyone to even consider shooting him. The last we see of Silvio, his wife (played by Van Zandt’s real-life wife) is giving him a pedicure in his hospital bed as he lies unconscious following the shooting.

We don’t know if Sil makes it out of that coma. Of course, we don’t really know if Tony makes it out of Holstein’s, either. However, we do know Chase and his team got the casting right. As Tony and Silvio, you couldn’t ask for more than Gandolfini and Van Zandt delivered.

Also see: Why Joe Pesci Quit Acting Until Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’