‘The Sopranos’: The Great Improvisation James Gandolfini Pulled Off in an Artie Bucco Scene

Is there anything redeeming about The Sopranos main character Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)? You might call it a loaded question. On the one hand, there’s Tony’s ability to shrug off killing men with his bare hands. (See: the rat in “College” or Ralphie Cifaretto late in season 4.)

You can go on for days pointing to negatives on Tony Soprano’s ledger. But there are positives as well. For one, Tony will do anything for his children. What’s more, he even finds ways to support his sister Janice (Aida Turturro). That took the phrase “forgive and forget” to the extreme.

You could also point to Tony’s relationship with lifelong friend Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia). Though Tony does Artie dirty on so many levels, he also excuses genuinely inexcusable behavior on Artie’s part. Tony loves Artie, and he protect him from certain physical harm at least twice.

On one of those occasions, Tony stops Christopher (Michael Imperioli) from jabbing a fork into Artie. While working through the scene, Ventimiglia recalled a something Gandolfini improvised that added so much to the scene.

James Gandolfini improvised an embrace and kiss of Artie in a tense ‘Sopranos’ scene

'Sopranos' stars pose together
James Gandolfini, Steve Schirripa and John Ventimiglia | KMazur/WireImage for Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS

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In “Another Toothpick” (season 3 episode 5), Artie has one of his worst moments on The Sopranos. Earlier in the episode, he learns that Adriana (Drea de Matteo) is quitting. Artie’s improbably fallen in love with her, and he feels disappointed on multiple levels.

When he sees Christopher eating dinner with Tony at Vesuvio that night, Artie starts messing with Christopher. He begins with some minor ribbing but it becomes obnoxious and abusive within seconds. Furious, Christopher pulls Artie up from the table and looks ready to maim him (or worse).

Tony pulls Christopher away and orders him outside. Then he turns his attention to Artie. The first thing Tony dies is slap Artie in the face and push him against a pillar. “What the f*ck is wrong with you?” a steamed Tony asks. “I loved her,” Artie says. “I f*cking love her now.”

After realizing Artie’s serious, Tony laughs with a mixture of amusement and pity. Then he embraces Artie and, eventually, kisses him on his head. On the Aug. 31 edition of the Talking Sopranos podcast, Ventimiglia said the affectionate part wasn’t in the script.

Ventimglia declined using a stuntman for the slap in the scene

'Sopranos' star John Ventimiglia posing with a book featuring his character
John Ventimiglia attends a book signing of “The Sopranos” at Borders on May 23, 2007, in New York . | Brad Barket/Getty Images

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Though producers planned to use a stuntman for the slaps, Ventimiglia declined, preferring to work straight through it with Gandolfini. And it paid off, though it wasn’t pleasant for Ventimiglia. “He slapped me, and my head hit the pillar behind me,” Ventimiglia recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what my name was.”

Unfortunately for him, Ventimiglia said they had to do about 14 more takes of the slap and reaction to get it right. But he marveled at Gandolfini’s ability to follow Tony’s violence with affection that wasn’t written into the scene. “I mean, it was just so organic,” Ventimiglia said.

By the start of The Sopranos, Ventimiglia had already lost several roles to Gandolfini. But after working with him so closely in scenes he realized what a force the late actor was. And he didn’t resent him for winning those roles. Gandolfini wouldn’t let him, anyway. “He’d always say, ‘You would’ve been better,'” Ventimiglia said.