Tony Soprano has to die. Sure, we all have to die, but Tony sooner than most.
After all, the final 20 episodes of "The Sopranos" begin airing Sunday, March 12, and how else to end the best drama that television has ever known?
For the past 21 months, fans all over the country have been pondering the possibilities should creator David Chase choose to kill Tony off: Will Carmela finally snap when one of Tony's dalliances steps over the line? Will Christopher start using heroin again and take revenge for Tony having his beloved Adriana killed? Will one of his henchmen, Paulie Walnuts or Syl, decide they have had enough? Or, could it be something entirely not mob-related, like Tony stops to help someone on the New Jersey Turnpike and a semi slams into him?
But it is safe to say that nowhere is the series' return more highly anticipated than in New Jersey, where it is nothing short of a religion. "The Sopranos," which uses locations around the state, is a trivia game for Garden Staters. "Have you eaten at that pizzeria?" "That gas station's in Verona." And yes, there's a real Bada Bing in Lodi.
So it seemed ironic that to do a set visit for "The Sopranos," one has to leave Essex County, where most of the action unfolds, and head to a studio in Queens.
Silvercup Studios, a nondescript series of massive buildings located in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge, is a world away from the thickly wooded, overpriced McMansions and upscale malls of Essex County. Yet, the magic that creates movies and shows happens here. The magicians are guys in worn jeans, who talk with the accents of the boroughs. They have union cards in their wallets and hammers in their hands.
They created Dr. Melfi's lovely office, where Tony confides his nightmares. The rich wood walls are beautifully curved, with built-in bookcases, and the walls hold art of the nondescript bucolic sort typically seen in doctors' offices.
It's the bookshelves, however, that give the first glimmer of why this show is so perfect and beloved. In Melfi's office, even the book titles are right, ranging from "Abnormal Psychology" to "Cardiology."
Just a few yards away is the lush re-creation of a Plaza Hotel room, where last season Tony checked himself in. Workers are painting and vacuuming the room, which features posh chairs, antique occasional tables and diffused lighting.
"The Sopranos" is known for its secrecy, so when the next corner reveals a rustic cabin, all the publicist guide will offer is: "Vito's taking a break at a B&B in a fictional town in New Hampshire." In reality, some of this episode was shot in Boonton, N.J.
The next stop is so realistic, you want to sit down and start ordering. Nuovo Vesuvio, Artie's restaurant, looks like a lot of upscale Italian restaurants in New Jersey. A mural of an active Mount Vesuvius graces one wall. The bar, where so many deals are brokered, is well stocked. A brown menu, with a gold tassel, rests on a railing. It is in Italian and English and the prices are in line with this sort of restaurant. An Essex County Board of Health certificate that cost $240 hangs framed next to the bar. The seats and tables are under heavy plastic.
A few paces away is the back of Satriale's Pork Store. Inside, one would assume Harry S. Truman is still in office, judging by the 1952 calendar pinned to the desk. The Frigidaire looks toxic, and everything has a layer of grime that seems authentic. Napoli travel posters share wall space with a "Last Supper" painting. A steer's head dominates the room, though the boar's head is not easily ignored. A chair in the corner has that favorite-piece-of-furniture look, its yellow velvet crushed beneath the weight of too many heavyset men sitting for too long.
A short walk takes us to The House.
The Soprano residence is indeed a real home in North Caldwell, N.J. This, however, is the set of the house, a replica. It's easier for the crew than a real house because walls can move, allowing cameras and lights to be shifted.
The first surprise is that the rooms are much smaller than they appear on television. We all know it isn't real, yet one can't help but be disappointed. Instead of inhaling a rich marinara simmering on the stove, the only scent is of dust burning under the hot lights.
This set and others share three aspects. The first is how repetitive the work is. The actors repeat their lines ad nauseum until the director has what he wants. The second is how much thinner actors are in person. It is striking how petite Edie Falco is and how slight Robert Iler is the camera really is cruel. And the third is how many people it takes to make a show. On sets, many folks appear to be loitering, but they are just waiting until they're needed.
The dining room is basic, with beige-on-beige silk chairs and a light wood table, and the breakfront holds white Westbrook china with a black border punctuated with pastel tulips. In the living room, metal music notes hang above the fireplace and the orange and beige silk chairs. Glass shelves hold bronze eggs and white vases with gilt trim. The bar has clear glasses with gold trim.
Beyond this is the fake backyard, and a transparency hanging from a rod features the pool. This optical illusion, a bit dizzying in person, looks real on TV.
The crew assembles in the living room to peer at a bank of TV monitors. Director Tim Van Patten slouches in front, wearing a Jack Daniel's baseball cap, next to the script supervisor. The writers sit behind them, ready to revise.
The scene begins. It will be repeated for at least five hours, yet will last all of three minutes on the eighth episode. Those in the living room wear headsets to listen to the actors in the kitchen.
The first sound that transmits is of someone chewing ... James Gandolfini, in Tony mode, chomps on a salami sandwich.
It's a domestic scene common to any marriage; she's clearing out the dishwasher while he's at the counter, eating a little something.
It is so odd to hear Tony's heavy breathing. Does he have a cold? Impossible to know. Gandolfini does not talk to press on set.
Carmela tells him that this salami has 40 percent less fat and sodium. "No kidding?" Tony says. "Always looking after me. I'm lucky to have you."
"And don't you forget it," Carmela says.
A.J., their son, comes downstairs in his boxers and T-shirt. He's just waking up after a late night, which annoys his parents. A teenager with bad attitude and little ambition, the first words out of his mouth ask for money.
His parents reflexively say 'no.' A.J. complains he needs new clothes. They counter that he spends too much time hanging out at clubs with a creepy guy. Tempers flaring, Tony tells A.J. he's not getting any money.
A.J. explains he's learning by being at the clubs and he wants his own establishment. "It's not like you can't afford to set me up," he says. "You've got all the money in the world."
Tony understands A.J. is interested in what he calls "the service industry" and offers to get him a job at a pizzeria. That is not what A.J. wants, and Carmela wants her son to return to college.
A.J. storms out. Tony says, "Maybe we should get him a club. Maybe he'll learn something."
"Are you insane?" Carmela counters. "He's not even of legal drinking age."
They will run through this scene for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes the director stops it, or Gandolfini or Iler forgets a line. Falco, who has logged more time on stage than her co-stars, does not. In five hours of rehearsals, she never flubs a line.
An interesting transformation happens to Gandolfini as he settles into character. He hardly appears giddy, but as Tony he seems far more serious. On a break, he walks by, smiling at a second publicist, yet a shadow crosses his face when he sees the accompanying reporter. He walks away, his massive shoulders pulled high.
In the family room, where Tony watches old movies while eating ice cream, Reader's Digest books line the shelves. A small photo captures Iler and a buddy at their First Holy Communion at St. Stephen's on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Ceramic dogs share shelf space with Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose." Though the often-dark westerner does not seem like a Soprano's book choice, Carmela's literary outlook was broadened when she had an affair with A.J.'s school counselor.
As the crew moves lights and wires, some people meander over to craft services. Apples, pears and bananas are arranged next to tea cakes, Chessman cookies, Pirouettes and instant noodle soup. Kashi, chocolate doughnuts and muffins are neatly stacked. Cheez Doodles, bottled strawberry and banana smoothies, 40 flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, Twisties, and Viennese wafers are on a table with lox and bakery rolls. There are also dried apples, raisins, mangoes and rice cakes.
As a crew member tiptoes by, lest his footsteps be heard on the version that makes it to air, the actors repeat their lines, then pause for a moment. The makeup artist touches up Falco's blush, someone yells "quiet please," and the hush falls over the set.
It's now 1:29 p.m. Carmela starts to unload that dishwasher yet again. And so it goes as they say these lines as if they have never said them before. As they run through it, Gandolfini asks the script woman for a line, then belches. Must be all that salami.
It's 1:49 p.m., and Van Patten calls out, "OK. We'll go again."
No one groans.
Behind blindingly bright lights, past another craft services table, this one being set with tubs of Ben & Jerry's, is Tony and Carmela's bedroom. A sign atop the beige and green muted bedspread reads "Stay off bed." Carmela hasn't turned Tony out again. Rather, this is what is known as a hot set, meaning it is ready for a shoot.
On Carmela's dresser are: Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion, Astara Botanical Cleansing Gele, Dr. Hauschka Body Powder, Laura Mercier Skin Care, and one completely out-of-character bottle light blue nail polish.
There are beads, a comb, a brush and gaudy earrings. On Carmela's nightstand is Clinique eye cream, a baby photo of Meadow, tissues and a gold-leaf teacup.
Tony's nightstand holds an alarm clock blinking 12, a phone, a remote and an ashtray.
Angel statues are on top of the armoire. A flat-screen TV rests atop an Ionic pedestal, and gold and silver stenciling decorates the walls. A green rug with a tile print is at the foot of the bed. Tony's eggplant silk pajamas are on a hanger outside the armoire.
Across the hall is A.J.'s bedroom, where a Mount Hebron Middle School schedule hangs on the bulletin board. On his shelf are textbooks for calculus, algebra, and financial and managerial accounting. A poster for the band Type O Negative is pinned to the wall, and a shelf holds compact discs by No Question, Wash's Drop and Major Figgas. A dart board and a calendar of babes in bikinis are on the wall. On his desk are a calculator and an economics text. Dirty clothes are on top of the hamper, and one sneaker is outside the closet. A.J.'s dresser top holds eye drops (crucial for club hoppers), Consort Hair Spray for Men, a brush, American Crew conditioner, Tex serum and a travel case. Ticket stubs from a March 7, 1999, New Jersey Devils-Chicago Blackhawks hockey game are tucked into a corner of the mirror. On A.J.'s nightstand is an alarm clock blinking 12, a wallet, a date book and a dog-eared copy of "Jurassic Park."
Back where the action is, the actors are about to repeat the scene. It's the 15th day of shooting this episode, says Van Patten, who will have directed 17 episodes by season's end. "You know how you can tell it's a great show?" he asks. "There's no turnover. You know people love a show when they keep coming back."
Van Patten has been with the show from Season 1. For a while some vocal Italian-American groups complained about the show's portrayal of Italians. They no longer hear from these groups. "I hesitate to say they've embraced us," he says. "(Chase) is telling a story. What are you going to do?"
As Gandolfini walks by, Van Patten says, "Tony reminds me of my father a little, larger than life."
On a show that takes such risks, have any surprised him?
"The show is always a surprise," Van Patten says. "I did the episode where they killed Ray, Adriana. And I never expected it. When you are in the trenches grinding it out, I never think of the outside world or what they will think of it."
He doesn't watch the show when it airs.
They are ready for Van Patten on set. As he walks away, a crew member says to another. "It's like dog years. One 'Sopranos' season is like seven years."
It is 3:11 p.m. when Van Patten calls action and Carmela starts extracting clean dishes. Each time the scene ends, Van Patten chuckles. Yet that doesn't stop him for making them do it again an hour later.