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Keeping up a series’ family resemblance

Special to The Times

SIX years ago, Denise Borino Quinn was one of 14,000 people who showed up at an open casting call for “The Sopranos” in Harrison, N.J. Like most of those in attendance, Quinn never got to see “Sopranos” casting director Georgianne Walken before the overwhelmed Harrison police force closed the event down.

But Quinn mailed her photos to the casting agency anyway and months later was asked to read for a part on the show. “Sopranos” creator David Chase was looking for an attractive plus-sized woman to play the wife of Johnny Sack, a capo in the New York mob. Quinn, who was working part time at a nail salon, proved perfect for the role; she was big, beautiful and, because the part called for some shouting matches, impressed Chase with her ability to scream like a banshee. Quinn has since appeared in more than a dozen episodes of the series.

“It has been the greatest ride of my life. I found my niche,” says Quinn, who nonetheless now works full time as office manager of a New Jersey law firm. “This is something I’m good at. I don’t look at it as work.”

Quinn is a perfect example of how the award-winning HBO series, which begins its new season tonight at 9, maintains its sense of authenticity through its careful casting of supporting roles. From one-line bit parts to featured character performers, the series makes every attempt to stay true to its East Coast ethnic milieu. In a bada-bing world, “The Sopranos” casts for bada-bing accuracy.

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“The smaller roles need to be Italian American, and they need to be real, which is a hard commodity to come by,” says casting director Walken. “Mr. Chase likes authentic, and a lot of times that’s bigger than life. An actor reads for me and it’s a gut reaction; you just know. And those are the people you want to bring to David Chase.”

It’s also a process that could occur only in the New York-New Jersey metroplex. Walken and other show insiders emphasize that except for a handful of roles, nearly every actor in the series lives or grew up in the immediate area. James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) is from New Jersey, Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) is a Long Island native. Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), etc., etc., are all locals.

“They don’t go for the glamorous types on ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says veteran actress Suzanne Shepard, who plays Mary DeAngelis, Carmela Soprano’s mother. “It’s a certain type of actor who can do this kind of show. It’s more naturalistic, much less about how beautiful you are, much more real.”

“The characters are so rich, and so ethnically correct, they can only be cast with New York actors,” adds Jerry Adler, a.k.a. Soprano family friend Hesh Rabkin. “There’s such a rich horde here in New York, down-and-dirty types that fit the quality of the show. Why import?”

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A soldier’s story

WHY indeed? Fact is, you’re probably not going to find a Joe Gannascoli at a Burbank Studios open casting call. A 400-pound chef and lounge owner from the ethnic enclave of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Gannascoli was kicking around the fringes of the acting business when he copped a small role in the 1996 indie film “Basquiat.” The casting director on that movie was Walken, who, thanks in part to the gentle prodding of “Basquiat” director Julian Schnabel, brought Gannascoli in to read for the part of Soprano foot soldier Bobby Bacala, a role that went to Steve Schirripa. But Gannascoli persevered and was eventually cast as Vito Spatafore, who, in one of the program’s most memorable moments, murders Jackie Aprile Jr., his own cousin.

“I think what they originally saw in me was I was about 400 pounds, and there are a lot of heavy guys in the mob,” says Gannascoli, who has since lost nearly half his weight and figures prominently in this season’s story line. “Because I was heavy at the time, I could be the brunt of a lot of jokes.”

Shepard, who has appeared in “Goodfellas,” “Requiem for a Dream” and other films, originally auditioned for the role of Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother. That part went to the late Nancy Marchand and Shepard took the role as Carmela’s mom after the producers had second thoughts about the actress initially hired for that role. “They saw I was a good actor, and I did look something like Edie Falco,” says Shepard. “David Chase called me into his office one day and said, ‘How come a WASP can do Jewish and Italian parts so well?’ I laughed. I’m a Romanian Jew.”

Adler also had friends in the business. In 1994, he appeared in three episodes of the series “Northern Exposure” that had been written by Chase. When the “Sopranos” pilot was shot, Chase asked him to do a cameo as Hesh. His work was impressive enough that when the pilot went to series, the role was expanded. Adler has now appeared in about 25 episodes.

Walken says that for any given episode, she might be filling 20 to 40 speaking roles and might have as little as three days to cast a part. “I don’t choose the final person,” she says, “I bring in three to five people per character to David, his writers and the directors. And they read for them. There is no easy part to this job. We never know what’s coming at us.”

One thing is for certain: Being a member of the “Sopranos” cast is a life-altering experience. Gannascoli now has his own pasta sauce line (and website, www.Joesoup.com), co-wrote a recently published “culinary mystery” called “A Meal to Die For,” and has appeared on that other great New York-centric show, “Law & Order.” Being on “The Sopranos” has “pretty much changed my life,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to get married and buy a house on Long Island.”

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For Shepard, who already had a legitimate acting career, it’s more about recognition, like when the woman behind the counter at a Los Angeles jewelry outlet became so excited when she recognized the actress that she called her husband and insisted he drop everything to come down to the store. “I’m honored to be a part of the show,” says Shepard. “Professionally, I don’t know what it’s done for me, but people love the show.”

Adler certainly knows what the show has done for him. The 77-year-old former Broadway stage manager and soap opera director got his first acting job at age 62, but “The Sopranos” has put his career into overdrive: Last year alone he had key roles in “CSI: Miami” as well as the feature films “Prime” and “In Her Shoes” (in which he plays a retirement home Lothario who woos Shirley MacLaine).

“ ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says Adler, “really made me a career. I had only done two movies and a couple of TV episodes before I got the role of Hesh. Now, all of the auditions I go to I’m recognized right away, and as a kind of introduction, it’s great. I’m already a little bit ahead.”


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