‘The Sopranos’: Why Lorraine Bracco Thought Dr. Melfi Was ‘the Weak Link’ in the Beginning

What made The Sopranos different from other mob stories? Several answers qualify, but you can start right at the beginning. In the pilot’s opening scene, viewers see mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) head into the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), a psychiatrist.

At that point, Analyze This (1999) hadn’t hit theaters. And even if it had, that comedic take on the mafioso-goes-to-psychotherapy concept wouldn’t have made The Sopranos any less innovative. Meanwhile, the suburban life of Tony Soprano also looked different than the view from Goodfellas (1990).

In that film (and most mob tales), it would have been unthinkable for the gangsters to get bossed around at home by their wives while their disobedient kids gave them recurring headaches. But The Sopranos was about a dysfunctional family as much as it was about the mafia.

Going into the pilot shoot in 1997, Bracco thought there were so many interesting scenes that her Dr. Melfi character wouldn’t shine through. In fact, she recalled considering Melfi “the weak link” in the opening installment of The Sopranos.

Lorraine Bracco thought her Melfi character would get lost in the ‘Sopranos’ pilot

James Gandolfini hugs Lorraine Bracco.
James Gandolfini embraces Lorraine Bracco at a ‘Sopranos’ season premiere in 2001. | Evan Agostini/ImageDirect

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On a visit to the August 2 edition of the Talking Sopranos podcast, Bracco revealed to former co-stars Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccala) and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) her state of mind prior to the pilot shoot. In brief, she saw fascinating scenes everywhere but inside Melfi’s office.

“I always felt I was the weak link,” Bracco said. “I felt, ‘Who’s going to be interested in listening to two people sitting in a chair, blah-blah-blah?'” Imperioli and Schirripa both disagreed strongly. “Who’s gonna be interested? Everybody,” Imperioli replied as Bracco laughed.

“That’s was made the show different,” Schirripa said. “That was the whole thing.” While Bracco agreed, she tried to explain her perspective prior to filming. “You understand, when you have you [Imperioli’s Christopher] and Edie [Falco, who played Carmela] and the kids … there were great scenes in the pilot.”

David Chase took an unusual approach to the Melfi scenes in the pilot

Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi
‘The Sopranos’ series regular Lorraine Bracco | Getty Images

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While extended sessions in Dr. Melfi’s office became normal later on in The Sopranos, creator David Chase didn’t handle it that way in the pilot (which Chase also directed). For the opening Sopranos episode, Chase cut back and forth between scenes from Tony’s life and his take on them inside Melfi’s office.

So Bracco needn’t have feared too much of the “blah-blah-blah” weighing on viewers. They didn’t get a chance to get bored as the action cut to Tony running down a guy who owed him money in his car and so forth. (Starting in the second episode, The Sopranos kept the conversations in Melfi’s office without cutting away.)

Bracco had a point, of course. The Sopranos pilot set up a number of fascinating conflicts that would get resolved later in the series. But between the head-butting with his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and the pot-stirring of his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), Tony definitely needed space to talk about things. Thankfully, he had Bracco’s Melfi for that.