DUBAI: There’s an ending to “The Many Saints of Newark: A Sopranos Story” that you’ll never see. In it, the young Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini’s now-22-year-old son Michael, struts directly towards the camera and, as he walks, he stops being the light-hearted kid that we have seen throughout the film. Gradually, he morphs into the Tony Soprano we know from the now-legendary series, the mob boss, the cold-hearted killer, with a smirk on his face. Cue the drums. “Woke up this morning,” sings a weathered voice, “and got myself a gun.”
For Michael Gandolfini, that was a pivotal moment. Michael was born months after the show premiered, grew up on set visiting his dad as often as he could but, as close as he was to his father, he never watched his dad play Tony (the role that made him internationally famous) in “The Sopranos.” It was too painful. Michael was the one who found his father’s body after his death from a heart attack in 2013.
But when he was approached by “Sopranos” creator David Chase about taking the role of the young Tony in a prequel movie, he dived in and, slowly but surely, accepted it was the role he was born to play.
“That day on set, I remember thinking to myself what it means to play Tony. I kept repeating to myself, ‘You can do this, you can do this,’ which is what Tony must have been (thinking) too. It was a parallel to when I was auditioning, not sure if I should take this role or could do this role, but I realized that this is my rightful place. This is what I deserve to do. Tony’s reflection on the mob is similar. That’s what I tapped into that day,” Gandolfini tells Arab News of that alternative final scene.
There was always a delicate balance with “The Sopranos.” Chase, throughout the entire run of the show and now with the prequel film, created a deeply human show that remains engrossing and thrilling, but always takes pains to never romanticize the world of organized crime. The scene was ultimately cut because Tony’s story is a tragedy. To Chase, walking Michael walk down the street with a calm sense of purpose was the happy ending Tony Soprano didn’t deserve.
“This kid shouldn’t be walking down the street with a smirk on his face. This kid is entering into hell. Even though I wrote it, once I saw it, I didn’t buy it. I hope the world never sees it,” says Chase.
In the world of “The Sopranos,” the toxic worldview of the mafia and the nightmarish world they live in is passed down from generation to generation. “The Many Saints of Newark” primarily follows the man responsible for damning Tony’s soul — Dickie Moltisanti, the leader of the family a generation earlier. And while Tony speaks of him with reverence throughout the series, this flashback story reveals him to be just as flawed as the rest of them.
“Dickie is a surrogate father to Tony, and he does everything wrong,” says Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dickie. “He’s either too hard on him, too angry with him, or too coddling of him. He does everything except just treat him with respect and honesty, which is really what children need. He just can't figure out how to do that. And he misses opportunity after opportunity to save Tony from this life.”
What the film adds to the show’s legacy, more than anything else, is a deeper look into the many types of broken people that make up this world, and how their inner poison affects everyone around them. While they are both bad men, Dickie and the Tony we know in the series are very different people. Dickie views himself as a good person who does charity work, who always acts as a gentleman, and who tortures himself when he inevitably gives in to the dark impulses he can’t control.
For the legendary actor Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), who plays Dickie’s father Aldo — an equally engaging and awful person — the reason he fought so hard to join the world of “The Sopranos” is precisely because the franchise is so human, filling its world with distinct individuals who each are driven by a darkness unique to them.
“What makes ‘The Sopranos’ different is it has richer, non-clichéd characters than anything like it. Each one is a human being who happens to be in this sort of world. It’s not one blanket personality, where everybody thinks or acts a certain way,” Liotta says. “Just because you’re in the same profession doesn't mean you each have the same way of thinking.”
And while 75-year-old Chase once thought he would never return to the world of “The Sopranos,” he recently signed a five-year deal with HBO, so don’t expect “The Many Saints of Newark” to be merely a curio tacked on at the end. In fact, it may be the start of something new.
“It would seem natural to now take Michael Gandolfini as Tony into his mid-to-late 20s, actively entering the life of crime. I would love to see that, but let’s see if I have the chance to make it,” says Chase.