‘The Sopranos’: ‘The Best Thing’ David Chase Did About Casting Was Take a Cue From Steve Buscemi
There’s something that keeps bringing TV audiences back to The Sopranos more than 20 years since the show’s premiere. For some viewers, the performances of the main cast members are enough. The work of James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and Edie Falco was really that good.
“I felt so lucky with that cast. I can say that without feeling I’m being sentimental or anything,” creator David Chase said in The Sopranos Sessions (2019). “There wasn’t anything they couldn’t do.” It didn’t stop with Gandolfini and Falco, of course.
During the show’s seven-season run, Chase got stellar work from series regulars like Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano) and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), among many others. David Proval (Richie Aprile) and Steve Buscemi (Tony Blundetto) also came up big in their one-season runs.
The casting of Buscemi was no accident: Chase had wanted him on the show from the start. Chase also loved Buscemi’s directing work in Trees Lounge (1996). And Chase admired the Trees Lounge casting so much he wanted the same for his series.
‘Sopranos’ creator David Chase made sure to hire the casting directors of ‘Trees Lounge’
When Chase was developing The Sopranos, he had an idea of the sort of cast he wanted. It was the sort of cast Buscemi had on Trees Lounge, which was Buscemi’s first feature as a director. Speaking with actor-director Peter Bogdanovich around 2000, Chase noted the impact the film had on him.
“I saw a movie Steve Buscemi directed called Trees Lounge,” Chase said. “It was very good. And I loved the way … I loved the cast.” Chase looked up the casting directors and learned Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken had worked on the film. Those weren’t names he recognized.
“I didn’t know either one of them,” Chase recalled. “I said, ‘That’s the people we should get to cast the show.’ I don’t think they’d ever cast a series before. They had cast mostly independent movies. So that was the best thing we did.”
Chase was correct on that count: Jaffe and Walken had never done a series before. But they would bring in so many faces they’d known from New York movies to the Sopranos cast.
‘Sopranos’ stars Michael Imperioli, John Ventimiglia, and Suzanne Shepherd worked on ‘Trees Lounge’
If you dial up Trees Lounge, you’re going to see one familiar face after another. Besides Buscemi in the lead role, you’ll find John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco), Elizabeth Bracco (Marie Spatafore), Suzanne Shepherd (Carmela Soprano’s mother Mary DeAngelis), and Imperioli (Christopher).
When Walken and Jaffe worked on Basquiat (1996), that film featured Joe Gannascoli (Vito Spatafore) in a minor role. The following year, while working on Illtown, the pair cast Paul Schulze (Father Phil). Indeed, you can see the Sopranos cast coming together in their work in the years leading up to the series.
“They brought us these great New York actors,” Chase recalled in his interview with Bogdanovich. That was important to him because he planned to shoot the series on location (whenever possible) in New Jersey. With Jaffe and Walken on the job after Trees Lounge, he got to work.