Could anyone have predicted the success of The Sopranos? While Michael Rispoli (Jackie Aprile) and other actors thought the show had potential, no one could have guessed such a thing. That’s why you had someone like Jerry Stiller pass on a major Sopranos role to act in a commercial instead.
When Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) got a part in a Woody Allen movie shooting at the same time, he chose the other way. Though he’d always wanted to work with Allen (as most actors did), Imperioli liked the Christopher character enough to stick with The Sopranos.
But that’s not to say Imperioli saw greatness (or even HBO ordering a first season) when he shot the pilot in late ’97. On the June 1 edition of the Talking Sopranos podcast, Imperioli spoke about it with co-host Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccala) and the esteemed Sopranos casting directors.
Michael Imperioli said he liked the script but didn’t get his hopes high
Since the launch of Talking Sopranos in April 2020, Imperioli has described seeing the show’s brilliance come across sometime late in the first season. But at first all he had was a script and the names of some actors he knew or admired from afar.
“I didn’t really have high hopes for it,” he said on Talking Sopranos Episode 10. “I read the script and I liked it. But I couldn’t tell it was gonna be the greatest TV show ever. From the script, it was hard to tell (the tone, or where it was going).”
Imperioli did like the fact that Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe were casting the show, though. David Chase had wanted them to work on The Sopranos after seeing Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge (1996). And the Emmy-winning duo didn’t disappoint.
However, cable TV dramas were basically nonexistent in 1997. And the HBO subscriber model hadn’t been proven on a large scale. So Imperioli had to wonder exactly who would be watching this innovative gangster show.
Imperioli didn’t know if ‘The Sopranos’ would have an audience
Considering Imperioli entered the business at a time when TV work was frowned upon by serious actors, you can understand his trepidation as he started The Sopranos. All the things we take for granted about HBO and Showtime hadn’t emerged yet (outside of unserious work).
“There weren’t hit shows on cable,” Imperioli said. “There was violence, there was profanity, there was nudity … even after we did [the pilot], it was like, ‘Who’s gonna watch? Are people gonna watch this? Is there an audience for this on television?’ I didn’t really know.”
As Walken pointed out, The Sopranos used the limitations of network TV to its great advantage. And soon enough — with The Wire following three years later — The Sopranos helped establish a new standard for the medium. Every once in a while, it’s useful to remember that wasn’t the case just 20 years ago.