‘The Sopranos’: Why James Gandolfini Tanked a Season 1 Shot on Purpose

How deep was the crew of The Sopranos? Even if you’re not the type who studies end credits, a glance at the series’ awards reveals what their peers in the industry thought. Between 1999-2007, Sopranos writers, makeup artists, casting executives, editors, and directors all won Emmys.

If you’ve ever admired the cinematography on a Sopranos episode, chances are it was the work of Phil Abraham, the Emmy-winning director of photography who shot the bulk (48 episodes) of the series. Abraham’s work on “Pine Barrens” certainly needs no introduction.

Over the show’s eight-year run, Sopranos cast members got close to Abraham. On one occasion, Abraham recalled star James Gandolfini pulling him aside to discuss something about the episode’s director. And during the conversation Gandolfini told Abraham he’d purposely blown a take.

‘Sopranos’ cinematographer Phil Abraham recalled a memorable exchange with James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
‘The Sopranos’ star James Gandolfini. | Getty Images

On his visit to the Talking Sopranos podcast, Abraham reminisced about his work on the show with co-hosts Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccala). And Schirripa brought up how close Gandolfini and Abraham were on the Sopranos set.

Abraham noted how Gandolfini was in an odd position while working on the show. As the Sopranos star, most of the cast and crew tended to defer to him. And that left Gandolfini (“Jim” to the cast and crew) with the usual doubts and questions an actor will have about their work.

“I think [Gandolfini] suffered a little from never getting any feedback,” Abraham said. “I don’t know if David [Chase] ever felt the need to come down and say, ‘Jim, you’re just killing it.’ That didn’t happen. But Jim was feeling like it would be nice to hear that from someone who knows.”

Abraham didn’t doubt that Gandolfini believed in his acting abilities, though. And a story he told about the Sopranos star revealed how much ownership Gandolfini took on the show’s set — and the lengths he’d go to test a director’s ability.

Gandolfini said he ‘tanked’ a shot to see if a ‘Sopranos’ director would notice the difference

James Gandolfini and David Chase
‘The Sopranos’: Star James Gandolfini and creator David Chase | Getty Images

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In The Sopranos Season 1, Chase ran with 10 different directors for 12 episodes. So he got a good look at directors, some of whom only helmed one episode of the show before not getting asked back. And Abraham remembered Gandolfini having questions about one particular director.

“Early on, we were shooting a scene, and at the end of it the director said, ‘Cut. Print. Let’s move on,'” Abraham said, alluding to the days when TV shows shot on film. But Gandolfini wasn’t ready to move on, and he pulled aside Abraham to talk it over.

“Before we’re moving on, he’s pulling me behind the stage to talk to me,” Abraham recalled. “[Gandolfini] goes, ‘Listen, I need you to keep an eye on him because I just tanked that last shot to see if this guy knew what he was doing. And he just printed it and moved on.'”

Abraham was taken aback a bit but agreed to keep an eye on the director. Since several directors never returned to direct a second episode, Sopranos sleuths can try and match up Abraham-shot episodes with one-time directors to guess who it was.