Creating a Racket!
Testing the Waters of Fame
Tony Soprano has nothing on James Gandolfini when it conies to protecting his privacy. What's his love life like? Out of the question, says Gandolfini. Okay, how many siblings does he have? "Forget about that. Okay, I have two sisters. No, don't print that! Okay, go ahead. I have two sisters."
And, dare we mention, one Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Gandolfini, who lives in Manhattan digs, had better get used to the attention. Recently, he recalls, "some homeless guy yells, 'Hey Tony!' and I wondered, 'How does this guy know who I am? Does he have HBO or what?.
It's just another example of how Gandolfini has made a splash bigger than that of the ducks in Tony Soprano's swimming pool—despite being the most unlikely leading man ever to seat himself on a casting couch. Though he stood out in supporting roles in True Romance said Get Shorty, it's his part as a Prozac-tamed capo that made him a star. "On the one hand, [Tony's] very affectionate, but on the other, he's brutal," says David Chase. "Jim shows those conflicts so amazingly well." The 37-year-old Gandolfini studied communications at Rutgers University, ("Just say I come from a nice Italian family from New Jersey") and spent time as a nightclub manager. He also drove trucks for a company called Gimme Seltzer. Acting, which he began at 25, presented a different challenge. "Getting up in front of people was frightening," he recalls, "and it made me angry that I was frightened. So I stayed." Now the press-shy Gandolfini has a more rapacious group to deal with: the media. "I do a job," he says with a sigh. "A carpenter does a job. He doesn't have to do an interview about the job he did."
Soldier of Fortune
Nabbing the role of Mob soldier Pussy (Big Pussy) Bompensiero meant Vincent Pastore could dump his $300-a-month apartment in The Bronx and begin to pay back some debts. "I'm starting to have a couple dollars in my pocket, buy a car, afford a nicer place near the beach," says the hulking 53-year-old actor who has since moved to an apartment on New York City's picturesque City Island.
He started acting at Pace University in 1967, only to drop out after three years. "I got caught up in the nightlife," he says. For the next two decades, Pastore, who is divorced and has a daughter, Renee Jordan, 23, owned and managed nightclubs in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he grew up the second of three children in a blue-collar family. Inspired by the success of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, he returned to acting in 1987. Small parts on television and film sustained him until his breakout hit. "He's really come into his own," says longtime pal Michael Imperioli. Pastore, who also has a wiseguy role in the Mob comedy Mickey Blue Eyes, appreciates his good fortune. "My father [John] worked hard all his life in a copper factory. He didn't want to get up in the morning and go to work," he says. "Even when I have to get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to be on the set, I'm never late."
A Rocker Wigs Out
"I'm not kidding when I say the hair is doing the acting," says Steven Van Zandt, who wears a black bouffant wig to play slick strip-club operator Silvio Dante. "The look is very important to me," he explains. "When I look in the mirror, I've got to see Silvio." Fans of The Sopranos and the rock-tour circuit were seeing double this summer as Van Zandt, 48, juggled his acting duties with his guitar for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. David Chase hired Van Zandt for his first acting role after seeing his face ("the essence of New Jersey," says Chase) on E Street albums. Indeed, Van Zandt plays his character close to his Asbury Park roots. "He's comfortable with who he is," notes his actress wife, Maureen, 48, who shares a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with her husband.
Van Zandt delights in his late-life debut. "This is one of those rare moments where I'm involved with something that's of high quality, and it's commercially successful," he says. "How often does that happen?" Given his history with the Boss, at least twice in a lifetime.
Going from Hard Time to the Big Time
Tony Sirico wears the skin of one Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano's icy enforcer, a little too well. "When it comes to this subject [the Mafia], he has a certain authenticity," says Steven Van Zandt. Actually, the 57-year-old Sirico has never been "connected," but he has had his share of run-ins with the law. In the 1970s, Sirico was jailed for sticking up some nightclubs in New York and served his sentences in prisons such as Sing Sing. "Let's just say I did a little time when I was a whole lot younger," he says.
Life was simpler growing up in Brooklyn, where he learned how to cook from his mother, Marie ("I make meatballs that if you sat down and ate, you'd never want to leave"). A friend turned him on to the Actors Studio in the mid-1970s, after Sirico was released from jail, and "I fell in love with showbiz," says the actor, who has appeared in GoodFellas and Mickey Blue Eyes. Divorced with two children (Joeanna, 37, and Richard, 35), Sirico still lives in the neighborhood, sharing a two-bedroom flat in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn with Marie, 80. "He cooks, he shops, he does everything," she says.
But walking the streets is difficult these days. Too many wiseguys offering advice. Says Sirico: " 'Be a little harder,' they say. 'Be a little softer. Button your shirt.' I get a kick out of the fact that they want to talk to me."
He Swears by His Character
So what's Robert Iler's motivation as a promising young actor? "I'm obsessed with Jennifer Love Hewitt, so I figured it would be. really cool if somebody felt that way about me. I'm hoping to meet her. I have pictures of her all over my bedroom, and I kiss one before I go to bed at night." The meeting just might happen, considering Iler's newfound fame as Anthony Soprano Jr., the couch-potato teenage son who spouts colorful language. "When I have to curse, the look on my mom's face is hysterical," says Iler, 14, of his mother, Helen, who works for New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "She reassures people, 'Oh, he doesn't do that at home.
Home for Iler is Manhattan's Upper East Side, where he lives with his mom and dad, Edward, 32, head engineer at a shopping mall, and brothers Michael, 5, and Brian, 1. His parents take turns escorting Iler to the set. "He has a private tutor to be sure he keeps up," says Helen, 33, who places her son's earnings in a trust, save for the $100 a month he gets to spend on extras such as football cards. And success is unlikely to change him. "My mom still yells at me the same amount," he says. "At least twice a day."
At Long Last, Recognition
Even beyond the obvious career differences, Dominic Chianese has little in common with Corrado "Junior" Soprano, Tony's uncle and wily don. "He's alone, never married, doesn't have a family," says the divorced Chianese, 68, who has four daughters, two sons and nine grandchildren. Not to mention a girlfriend, United Nations program officer Jane Pittson, 52. "I really got it right this time," he says of their relationship.
Still, Junior and Chianese do share one trait: Both love recognition. These days the actor, at least, is getting it. "A construction crew in Times Square stopped working and said, 'There's Uncle Junior!. reports Chianese. "Before, only people in theater knew who I was." The Bronx native has journeyed through Broadway and regional theater since 1952 with small parts in films such as The Godfather, Part II.
But despite those projects, Chianese, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, has struggled. To make ends meet, he often sings and plays guitar in nursing homes. "It's a thrill, because I love the elderly," he says. Being on the series, he adds, "is more money than I've ever made before, but it's not a lot of money. If I was making a lot, I'd get a bigger apartment."
A Made Man of Letters
For his first-ever scene in a movie, 1989's Lean on Me, Michael Imperioli was so terrified, he was speechless. "I had one line: 'Hey I'm going to be a star,. he recalls. "But I was so scared, I couldn't get it out of my mouth." That unspoken prophecy could well become a reality. As Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's histrionic nephew, Imperioli "has never blown a line of dialogue. He's letter-perfect," says David Chase.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Imperioli, 33, acquired his performance genes from his father, Dan, a bus driver, who acted in community theater. After landing roles in GoodFellas and Clockers, the actor, who shares a midtown Manhattan apartment with his wife, Victoria, 35, a philosophy scholar, son Vadim, 20 months, and stepdaughter Isabella, 9, began cowriting screenplays, including Summer of Sam. In fact, Imperioli wrote one of next year's Sopranos episodes. "I think it's really good," he says of the new season. "But I can't say any more or I'll be whacked."
Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Sue Miller in New York City