They come here to toast the dead. Ever since Big Pussy got clipped at the end of season two, the Sopranos cast has convened at Il Cortile, a little joint in Little Italy, to bid a proper farewell to members of the family who’ve been snuffed out and tossed into the purgatory of auditions and callbacks. Whacking parties, they call them. And here they are again, squeezed around a large table that feels suddenly tiny, jabbing their fleshy paws into the air and ordering up the usual.
“I’ll take some veal marsala!” bellows Steve Schirripa, a behemoth of a man better known to Sopranos scholars as Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri. “Actually, make that a few veals! And some penne arrabiata. Maybe a vodka rigatoni. And let’s get like three carafes of red wine. Oh, and some of that steak! The one that’s not on the menu. A few steaks!” He sighs contentedly before turning to his cast mates. “All right,” he asks, “what do you guys want?”
Tonight’s feast isn’t an overtly morbid affair; the wiseguys are showboating and wisecracking, same as ever. But the sixth and final season of The Sopranos premieres March 12, and something tells me I’m not alone in seeing our gathering for what it is: the ultimate whacking party, the last supper for the last men standing. These are the guys who play Tony’s soldiers, the ones doing the disappearing and racketeering, the other family competing for his love and loyalty. Individually, they may verge on cartoonish, but collectively they embody the show’s more sinister heart. After all, Tony is a surreal figure—an existential brute perpetually examining his actions—whereas his crew is much closer to the real thing: relentlessly amoral, immune to change, a band of sentimental sociopaths that grounds the Sopranos in legitimate mob culture. “They all know that world so well,” James Gandolfini tells me. “I ask for their opinions all the time and trust whatever they tell me about what I’m doing.” More than anything, they provide David Chase, the show’s creator, with a vehicle to express his compellingly bleak worldview: that evil often wins out over good, that the glitch of the human mind may be its insistence on believing otherwise.
As fictional thugs, their roles are tied up in the same cruel joke that makes the show so riveting: Any one of them, at any moment, could wind up dead. “David Chase invented the Big Pussy Rule,” explains Schirripa, “which is that no one lives forever.” Before signing the mortgage on his Tribeca apartment, Schirripa made the rounds, asking if anyone had heard rumors about his being whacked. “I would’ve bought something five years ago, but I thought they’d kill me.”
“Oh, man, it is a constant worry,” chimes in Tony Sirico, who in person comes off a lot like Paulie Walnuts: the sarcastic hostility, the slicked silver wings in his pomaded hair.
“The fact that you don’t know if you’re going to live or die creates an intensity that shows up in the work,” adds Steve Van Zandt, the guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who plays Silvio Dante, Tony’s consigliere.
“I did die!” exclaims Dan Grimaldi, the only member of the crew to be killed (as Philly Spoons) and resurrected (as Patsy Parisi, his twin brother).
Like athletes, the actors concoct rituals they hope will stave off their day of reckoning. Arthur Nascarella, who plays Carlo Gervasi, walks to the show’s set at Silvercup Studios over the 59th Street bridge, no matter the weather. And though he wants as much screen time as the next guy, he knows the risk: “As soon as you start talking a lot, you’re dying,” he says. “You get a lot of dialogue—that’s the end.”
This is Joe Gannascoli’s problem. In one of last season’s more startling moments, his character, Vito Spatafore, was caught going down on another man. “My idea!” he boasts. “It was in a book I was reading. True life, an openly gay mobster.” It gave his role more depth, but given Tony’s stubborn perspective on just about everything, his risk of being clipped is exponentially increased.
When I bring all this up a few days later with Chase, he tells me he’s aware of the irony: that the anxiety he creates in his actors bears more than a passing resemblance to the way Tony manages his workers. “If I call to thank them for a Christmas gift, I can hear it in their voice,” he says. “They’re thinking, Oh, no. What’s he calling for? Is this the end? ” To soften the blow, he’s devised a procedure to deal with the soon-to-be-deceased: He finds the actor at a script reading a month before the scene, calls him into his office, and breaks the news. Since the rest of the cast doesn’t get the script until a few days before shooting, the dead man walking must take a vow of silence. Of course, now all their fates are sealed, regardless of how the writers decide to treat their fictional alter egos, which is the white elephant here in the dining room at Il Cortile.