Friday, June 08, 2007

‘Sopranos’ Grief

By Dick Cavett
The New York Times
June 6, 2007

I welcome any advice anyone has about a certain problem: How is a person supposed to live without “The Sopranos”?

Last Sunday’s penultimate episode gave me a vivid nightmare. A woman I know was unable to sleep at all after watching it. God knows what watching the ultimate one will do this weekend, on what we the devoted think of as Black Sunday.

The great David Chase, who created it all, decided to pull the plug on his stately craft while her sails are still billowing, an action as rare in the world of television as a sincere compliment. Or a program as good as “The Sopranos.”

I’m glad it’s only a rumor that he has had to increase security for himself against armed fans unable to accept the reality of the long-dreaded terminus. How can we fan(atic)s of the show express our boundless gratitude to Mr. Chase? Maybe we could all sign one huge “thank you” to him — a Hallmark card the size of New Jersey. Were this Japan, Chase-san would have long since been declared a Living National Treasure.

Accusations of name-dropping are bred of envy, and I felt it strongly toward anyone who met or claimed to have met actors from the show — until, that is, I met actors from the show. I came bounding home some years ago to announce to my wife (the late Carrie Nye, an actress) that we could go to a party where there would be members of the cast. She declined: “They’re such fine actors, but I don’t want to know that they’re actors. I want them to remain those people.”

Please resist envy, then, when I say that I have gotten to know and hang out with the sinfully talented Michael Imperioli (“Christopher,” Tony’s problem nephew, as well as the author of numerous episodes). Having dinner with him (and his wife) had no effect whatever of the kind my wife refused to risk. There he was, a day later, on the show: Christopher again. Moving, scary and certainly no one I had ever met. The magic of acting.

This year, Michael got me onto the set and I was in hog heaven. Getting to rub shoulders with cast members and lucky souls like wardrobe people and best boys who got to be there every day, and magic names I knew from the screen credits like Brad Grey — all of it a most heady experience. I stayed long and late and left feeling like a kid coming back from the circus, with nothing to look forward to but home and school.

I don’t know how to relate, nor what to say, to people who gave the show a pass because they “didn’t want to see another crime show.” I suppose it’s possible to lead a full life without ever having known what is meant by “Bada Bing” or “Big Pussy” or “Uncle Junior” or “Dr. Melfi,” but I’m not sure. I doubt that such willfully self-deprived souls would welcome my sympathy. But, my God, what they missed. If I were artistic commissar it would have been required viewing.

(I feel much sorrier for those who sampled it and found nothing to admire. They are beyond hope.)

I gave DVDs of the show’s first season to a very intelligent, well-educated, couple I know. They are high-toned people. They scorn television. To shut me up, they agreed to watch at least part of the first show late one afternoon. They tolerated, with a snicker, my suggestion that as in the potato chip commercial, they couldn’t watch just one episode. They later confessed that they barely moved as both dinner and bedtime came and went before they could make themselves shut it off.

A special Emmy should be awarded for the casting. There was not a dud in the carload. And no one was ever just a type. They were whole, intricately complex people and we got to peer into their lives and personalities to a degree I’ve never seen achieved before.

I don’t know enough about camera technique, cutting and editing skills to be able to explain why the violence was, strange to say, better violence than you get elsewhere. It was cruelly and sometimes repellently real. You got a solid, visceral punch. Where else would a man, having stomped and kicked the head of his victim, look down later during his therapy session and remove a bloody tooth with some clinging gum tissue from his cuff? You wouldn’t say it was funny, but it was handled in such a way that it was not entirely unfunny.

Maybe the show’s trickiest accomplishment was the way it made characters clearly deserving of hate be so sympathetic. You could not only find yourself liking an evil character, but having fun feeling guilty about it. How could you not feel a tug at your heart when a tough and disreputable gangster, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), confesses to having sought professional help? (“Right now we’re working on my coping skills.”)

I found it rewarding to watch each episode a second time. Subtleties of both dialogue and acting were often missed on a single viewing.

I’m afraid, by the way, that I have no patience with pressure groups of the kind that have arisen from time to time, wanting “The Sopranos” killed because it gave a bad name to Italian-Americans; implying, they felt, that all folks from Italy are gangsters. It doesn’t, of course, and couldn’t. But it reminds me of when the same problem came up with the highly popular “The Untouchables.” Why, it was demanded, must all the crooks have Italian names? Since the show dealt with real figures, it would have been a bit silly to change Al Capone’s name to, say, Al Hollinshed. (A great comedy writer, the late Jack Douglas, offered a solution. When asked about this, he said, “Why not get the gangsters to change their names?”)

The fact that James Gandolfini wasn’t necessarily the first or only choice for the role of Tony is scary. And Edie Falco has confessed that she almost didn’t get the part of Carmela; not because she wasn’t good enough but because she almost didn’t go to the casting appointment: “I’d been four other places that day and I was tired and it sounded like a show about singers and….” As she admits, what she got was, simply, “the part of a lifetime.”

Gandolfini and Falco. These two gifted actors created a classic dramatic couple. I see them as no less than the Lunt and Fontanne of their particular artistic world. (I can hear the uninitiated saying, “Get hold of yourself, Cavett.” Let ‘em.)

Well, it’s nearly closing time in the gardens of New Jersey. The “Sopranos” Web site is full of speculation by fans. Will Tony die in the final episode? (If the show ends but he doesn’t, where does that leave him? And us?) Will David Chase ever reveal the formula for such a smashing success? And could it be as simple as: perfect writing, casting, acting, directing, costuming, lighting and editing? And make-up?

Having to make do without any new episodes of what, in the fullness of time, will be judged to be the Mt. Everest of television achievement is a chilling prospect.

If only there were a rehab place to deal with us, the addicted ones. Or, maybe, some kind of “Sopranos” Nicorettes?

***

Postcript: It’s nice for me to think that someday a trivia test may contain an extra-points-for-difficulty question: In what episode of “The Sopranos” was Dick Cavett seen?

The jackpot answer is: May 13, 2007. Tony and Carmela are in bed, anguishing over their problems and unable to sleep. She asks if it’s okay to turn on the TV. And there I am: Little Dickie Cavett from Nebraska being watched by two of his idols. (I blush to confess that I sort of hoped one of them would utter a favorable comment.) It’s a clip from my Katharine Hepburn shows.

This so gladdened my heart that I think — now, at least — it’s my favorite résumé item. (Do you think Miss H. would be similarly thrilled?)

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