When the cast of The Sopranos gathered in 1997 to shoot the pilot, many of the actors had worked together on projects in the past. One example was Hand Gun (1994). In that picture, you’ll find Paul Schulze (Father Phil), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), and Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo).
John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco) also turns up in a small role in the low-budget heist movie. For Ventimiglia, Hand Gun represented more than a minor screen credit on the way to a long career in acting; it was the picture that got him his SAG card.
On the August 31 edition of Talking Sopranos, Ventimiglia spoke about the years before he worked on the HBO mob series. Along the way, Ventimiglia found himself in competition with James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) for a number of roles. And Gandolfini kept beating him out for the parts.
James Gandolfini beat out John Ventimiglia for a film and Broadway show before ‘The Sopranos’
On his visit to Talking Sopranos, Ventimiglia had a lot to talk about with co-hosts Imperioli and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccala). Ventimiglia and Imperioli met at acting school in New York in the early ’80s and came up through the ranks together. (They were even roommates at one point.)
But for Ventimiglia his time on The Sopranos began with an encounter with the actor he recognized from multiple casting-call battles of recent memory. “He beat me out for, like, three roles in a row before I knew who he was,” Ventimiglia said of Gandolfini.
“He beat me out for The Juror  with Alec Baldwin,” Ventimiglia recalled. “I screen-tested with Alec Baldwin. They kept bringing me in, bringing me in. Then they said, ‘Oh, they gave it to Gandolfini.’ I’m like, ‘Who?'”
But it didn’t end there. “Our teacher Eileen Aiken said, ‘They’re doing A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. I’m going to tell them about you,'” Ventimiglia recalled. “And Gandolfini got it.” However, Ventimiglia found it hard to hold it against his Sopranos co-star.
Ventimiglia also auditioned for Tony Soprano
At another point in the August 31 Talking Sopranos, Ventimiglia spoke about reading for the Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts characters before producers cast him as Artie Bucco. So in a sense Gandolfini beat him out for the Sopranos lead as well.
If it were another actor, Ventimiglia might have resented him for it. But he said Gandolfini’s humility preempted such feelings. “The thing about Jim — I don’t want to be corny about it but it’s true — if I ever said, ‘You know man, you beat me out. Your name kept coming up.’ He’d be like, ‘You would’ve been better [in the role].'”
The more you hear from cast members about their time working with Gandoldfini, the more you come to expect such stories. Even a guy who lost work to Gandolfini on three occasions couldn’t harbor ill will for the guy. It’s one of the reasons he remains so missed seven years after his death.