TV Club

A Sopranos Writer Takes Us Behind the Scenes

Dear Jeff and Jerry,

First of all, thanks for your kind words, but especially for letting me join the Sopranos “TV Club.” (I’m assuming at some point I’ll be taught the secret handshake.)

As you know, to the never-ending frustration of some of our viewers, we often fail to pay off what happens in one episode in the next and sometimes don’t pay things off at all. (The next guy who asks me what happened to the Russian gets kicked in the nuts.) This is by design, for such is life, even if such is not network television, where everything is wrapped up in neat little bows.

As for this episode, there was a lot of story to tell in 60 minutes, much of it involving the complex psychological relationship Tony has with his dead parents. As we had hoped, the “Tony-also-hates-his-father” segments were interesting, and to explore this issue fully, we needed to spend some time on Tony’s emotional roller coaster. First, he puts his father’s mistress on a pedestal, then slowly comes to see her for what she really is. But just when he begins to empathize with his mother, he pulls back, choosing to hide in the safety of the fiction that his mom was pure evil and his dad’s comare was “like a princess.” As for giving her the full $150,000, we decided that Tony regarded this as blood money, in a way—if his father wanted this woman to have it, that’s what he was going to give her. The fact that his behavior is not usually in keeping with that of a mob boss in some ways cuts to the core of Tony’s character. Perhaps his biggest flaw as a mobster is that he has a conscience.

To answer your questions, Jeffrey, I unfortunately have no idea what the going rate for an Emmy is. Having once pawned an incredibly ornate Mexican chess set (Aztecs vs. Conquistadors) for only 5 bucks, I figured $15 for the Emmy was about right. My other answers are as follows:

1) I majored in political science at NYU. Before that, I had been a partner in a delicatessen, and before that, I went to Grady (the trade high school off the Belt Parkway), where I studied auto mechanics. As you know, Brooklyn’s not exactly awash with Hollywood types, so the idea of writing scripts for a living was about as foreign a concept as stopping the car to let pedestrians cross the street. When I stumbled into college at age 19, I was looking for something I could use to make money. (I was told poli sci was the most popular major for future lawyers, so I went with that.) It wasn’t until my junior year that I realized NYU even gave classes in TV writing, and even then I didn’t sign up for any. Many years later, I taught myself screenwriting by reading every book on the subject and then just plunging in.

2) As J.T. said last night, “You write it all yourself.” I included this exchange in the script because that’s one of the most commonly asked questions, and it always amazes me that people think that. Actually, we have a fairly small writing staff by TV standards. There’s David Chase, Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, Matt Weiner, and me. (Michael Imperioli usually writes an episode for us every season as well.)

3) I’m not afraid of decaying old age at all since the odds of my experiencing it are extremely remote. (Based on our medical histories, the shelf life for people in the Winter family slightly exceeds that of heavy cream.)

4) I have been to Rao’s exactly once. We were shooting an episode and wrapping at a decent hour, so our director and I decided to have dinner. He was from Los Angeles and mentioned that he’d love to try Rao’s. I figured getting a table should be easy since Frank Pellegrino, the owner, plays FBI Agent Cubitoso on our show. True to his nickname (Frankie No), he told my assistant he couldn’t help us. After several more pleading phone calls (and the empty threat of giving his character a permanent case of laryngitis), he agreed to give us a table—if we came at 10:30. So much for throwing my weight around.

5) As for my mob research, most of what I know is a result of osmosis and from reading Jerry’s books. As a kid, I worked in a butcher shop allegedly owned by a very highly placed Mafia leader (not that there is such an organization), where I picked up a lot of color. As a young man in the ‘80s, I also hung around a lot of the Brooklyn clubs where many alleged organized-crime types hung out. Allegedly.

Back to you guys.