‘The Sopranos’: Why David Chase Didn’t Want to Bring Frank Vincent Aboard Until Season 5

If you take in The Sopranos more than once, you notice some lulls in the series. While you get great jokes and well-acted scenes every time out, the writers couldn’t deliver in each of the show’s 86 episodes. One lull arrives early in season 4, when Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) serves time in Ohio.

Forget the ludicrous storyline about Paulie getting picked up with a hot gun while visiting Dean Martin’s birthplace. During those episodes, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) gets more obnoxious as Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) gets ever whinier. Then comes the Columbus Day fiasco.

Meanwhile, you’re asking yourself, “How is Ralph Cifaretto [Joe Pantoliano] still alive?” Even a New York underboss wants to pop Ralphie, but Tony’s nemesis somehow keeps on keepin’ on. And it takes until “the class of ’04” for a genuine villain (from Tony’s perspective) to emerge.

That villain is Phil Leotardo, played by Frank Vincent. Almost immediately, Phil establishes himself as the thorn in Tony’s side the show’d been missing. When speaking about Vincent, Sopranos creator David Chase said he had to make himself wait before bringing the scene-stealing actor aboard.

‘Sopranos’ creator David Chase wanted separation from Frank Vincent’s ‘Goodfellas’ character

Frank Vincent in 'The Sopranos'
Frank Vincent as Phil Leotardo in ‘The Sopranos’ | HBO

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If you ask people to name Frank Vincent’s signature roles, most would point to his work in Martin Scorsese films before citing The Sopranos, which was his most prominent role. (Vincent received credit for 31 Sopranos episodes.)

Vincent, who worked in a comedy duo with Joe Pesci before landing acting gigs, brought his sneering authenticity to a major film for the first time in Raging Bull (1980). But Vincent had one of the most quoted lines of all time in Goodfellas (1990).

As Billy Batts, Vincent tells Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, “Now go home and get your f*cking shine box.” Then Batts, cheesy mustache and all, taunts Tommy some more. Vincent wasn’t done in Scorsese movies, though. In ’95, he was back in Pesci’s crew for Casino.

For Chase, Vincent’s performance as Billy Batts overshadowed his other work. “Frank had to wait four or five years before I felt The Sopranos had established its own identity, and Phil Leotardo would now be perceived as a different character than Billy Batts,” Chase told GQ in 2010.

Chase worried about having too many ‘Goodfellas’ actors on ‘The Sopranos’

Vinny Pastore and Frank Vincent
Vincent Pastore and Frank Vincent pose at ‘The Sopranos’ 5th season premiere. | Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic

When you flipped on the first season of The Sopranos, Scorsese fans noticed some familiar faces. In fact, in that first scene, the female lead in Goodfellas (Lorraine Bracco) sets the tone for the series as Dr. Melfi. Then, in flashbacks, we see Christopher being played by Michael Imperioli, who played Spider in Goodfellas.

Before long, viewers get a look at Vincent Pastore (Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero) and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), both of whom played minor roles in Goodfellas. Chase knew that he risked having too many cast members known for the movie in The Sopranos.

“The challenge was to make a good mob series without stumbling over the Goodfellas cast at every turn,” Chase told GQ. “Because they were all so good, and they were all around.” With Vincent, it was better late than never. The show wouldn’t be the same without him in the final seasons.