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REVIEW: 'Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos'

December 19, 2021

There's a scene in The Sopranos in which Tony Soprano, the show's morally compromised protagonist who runs organized crime in northern New Jersey, pulls aside his protégé Christopher Moltisanti, who's considering leaving the mafia. He gives him an ultimatum: "In exactly 10 minutes I'm gonna look up. If you're not here I'm gonna assume that you went to look for whatever the fuck it is that's calling you out there, and that I will never see you again. If you are still here then I'm going to assume that you've got no other desire in the world but to be with me, and your actions will show that every fucking second of every fucking day."

It's a show of intimidation that's relatively tame for the mob boss, who regularly metes out death sentences in response to betrayal. But what's unique about it is that it's pulled from a real-life moment between The Sopranos' creator and showrunner David Chase and a prospective writer for the show. According to screenwriter Todd Kessler, Chase offered him a similar ultimatum—he had 10 minutes to decide whether to break his contract with NBC in order to join HBO and write an episode of The Sopranos. Kessler, 25 years old at the time, decided to take a gamble on his career and join the show, and he drew from his tense encounter with Chase in the first episode he wrote for the series.

That story comes from a new book co-written by two friends and veterans of the show's cast, Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa. Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos is an offshoot of the actors' successful podcast they launched at the start of the pandemic last year. The book, which takes its name from the show's iconic opening theme song, is a collection of conversations with nearly every living person who played a role in the show, from actors, writers, and directors to production and casting heads. Their stories offer a rare insight into the close bond the cast formed over the series' run and how their lives were transformed as The Sopranos became the biggest show on television. It also reveals the personality and vision of the show's reticent and uncompromising creator, and the demands he made of those involved in The Sopranos to achieve that vision.

One of Chase's demands for the show was that Italian-American characters be portrayed by Italian-American actors whenever possible, and he rarely conceded on that point. As the show went on, the search for culturally appropriate actors became so desperate that the casting director was obligated to interrogate cast members about their families.

The cast's shared background didn't just make them convincing mobsters, it made them close friends from the get-go despite their widely diverse personalities and experiences. Imperioli, who played Moltisanti, Tony Soprano's young and impulsive protégé, is a thoughtful and idiosyncratic type who practices Buddhism and has written a novel, screenplays, and even a few episodes of The Sopranos. Schirripa, who played Bobby Baccalieri, a lovably timid and unintelligent member of the Soprano crew, worked as an entertainment promoter in Las Vegas before he got his breakthrough role on the show.

The men in the cast formed a tight clique early on in the show's run, a Rat Pack that in some ways emulated the crew from the show. James Gandolfini, the actor behind Tony, was the carousing group's leader and an active participant in its excessive boozing and partying. Woke Up This Morning gives light to the cast's excesses and how they sometimes interfered with the show's production, like when Imperioli and Gandolfini got so wasted before filming a scene at a cliff's edge that the crew chained them to trees during the shoot so they wouldn't stumble to their deaths.

That said, everyone involved in the show has nothing but praise for Gandolfini as a modest and generous man and an exceptional actor, even as they acknowledge his personal struggles. He detested the public attention he received as the face of The Sopranos, occasionally butted heads with cast and crew, and the process of getting into the character of Tony took a toll on him. One gets the sense, though, that the cast members are holding back in their retelling of his on- and off-set issues out of respect for the man. According to a new tell-all about HBO, the network's executives were worried about Gandolfini "staying alive" due to his heavy drug use. He died at 51 years old, six years after the show's finale, of a heart attack.

The show's all-star team of writers didn't let loose as much as the cast. Chase wasn't usually on set when the show was being filmed, but he was hands-on in writers' meetings, ensuring the tone and direction of the episodes fit his vision. Chase abhorred fan service, predictable plot lines, and anything reminiscent of the traditional network TV formula. Writers knew if Chase disliked their suggestions for the plot, they might not be working on the show for long.

Chase flipped through the scripts before shooting during "tone meetings" with writers and directors, typically a casual affair on most shows. On The Sopranos, though, participating in tone meetings was like "defending your life," as director Tim Van Patten put it. Writers who impressed during meetings and understood where Chase wanted to take the show stayed for years; if they didn't, they were let go with little hesitation.

Kessler, the writer who worked Chase's ultimatum into a Tony Soprano spiel, wrote some of the series' most celebrated episodes, but he wasn't insulated from Chase's propensity to purge his writing talent. His time on the show came to an abrupt end one day, when Chase told him, "You know what, I think it will be best if you're just not here."

It's not hard to see parallels between Chase's leadership and that of his protagonist, at least in the way his subordinates lived in fear that their boss would turn on them. When characters on The Sopranos got "whacked," there was often a figurative whacking going on behind the scenes as Chase informed the actor that they would be leaving the show. Actors would sometimes plead for their job when they heard the news, for Chase to write them back into the show, almost certainly knowing he wouldn't budge.

It's easy to sympathize. Everyone on the show knew they were part of something special, that The Sopranos wasn't just a gig. Chase proved to millions that television can be as good as cinema, and set a bar for the medium that has yet to be broken. It was worth the pressures and challenges of working under an iron-fisted showrunner to be a part of that project.

Some of The Sopranos' alums managed to escape its shadow in the years after its 2007 finale. Writer Matthew Weiner went on to create Mad Men. But for Chase, Imperioli, Schirripa, and others, The Sopranos will forever be their defining contribution to popular culture. Twenty years after the show first aired, Woke Up This Morning feels like the authors' reconciliation with that fact and a celebration of how their lives were changed and became tethered during the time they worked together. For better or worse, as Tony Soprano tells Christopher Moltisanti, "once you enter this family, there's no getting out."

Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos
by Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, with Philip Lerman
William Morrow, 528 pp., $30

Published under: Book reviews