07/03/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
In January, as the Sopranos gang celebrated their four-trophy win backstage at the Golden Globes in L.A., the mafia saga's capo, James Gandolfini, wanted to share his joy with costar Nancy Marchand, who'd earned a supporting-actress award. But Marchand, suffering from lung cancer, remained at her home on the East Coast. "He called on his cell phone," says David Proval, who played Soprano family nemesis Richie Aprile in the second season of HBO's Mob hit. "And you know what she said? 'Yeah, yeah, all right. Terrific. I'm going to sleep. I'll speak to you tomorrow.' And she hung up on him!" In the words of Dominic Chianese (Tony Soprano's Uncle Junior), "She wasn't into small talk."
Marchand, who died at home on June 18, the day before her 72nd birthday, always exuded that purse-lipped power. Stern-browed and reedy—her lifelong nickname was "Nun"—she could take control of any scene, whether as Mrs. Pynchon, the aristocratic newspaper publisher on CBS's Lou Grant (1977-82), or Livia, The Sopranos' murderous matriarch. Off-camera, too, she made her presence felt. "Even when she was smoking a mile a minute or cursing like a stevedore, she did it with elegance," says Grant star Ed Asner. Yet arriving on the set, "she dressed like a bag lady," says friend Robert Walden, who played reporter Joe Rossi. "She had this big cloth shopping bag she could've sold as a workout tool—it was that heavy."
Somehow the actress known for portraying patrician ladies (like Harrison Ford's mother in 1995's remake of Sabrina) reached in and pulled out Livia, the put-upon yet diabolically crafty mother of Tony Soprano (Gandolfini). "She would never say, 'This is the best role I ever had,' " recalls series creator and executive producer David Chase. "But I know she enjoyed doing it. A couple of times she'd say, 'That woman is a hoot.' "
But Livia was more than a juicy role—she was a lifeline. Marchand had been fighting lung cancer and pulmonary disease for several years when she auditioned for The Sopranos in 1997. "We knew she had some physical problems," says Chase. "But hiring her was not a mercy mission. She was just so good. Any minute with her, we would have taken." Marchand was just as grateful. "The show kept her going," says Aida Turturro, who plays black sheep daughter Janice.
Although Marchand often needed to breathe from an oxygen tank between takes, "she was pretty stoic," says Chianese. But she deteriorated after her husband of 47 years, Paul Sparer, 75, died in November, soon after being diagnosed with cancer himself. "More than anything else I think she had a broken heart after my father died," says daughter Katie C. Sparer Bowe, 44, an actress and mother of three. "She was a great, neat, regular person. There was absolutely nothing highfalutin about her."
Marchand grew up, more Pynchon than Soprano, in a suburb of Buffalo. She was the daughter of a dentist, Raymond, and a pianist, Marjorie. "We had only the royal WASPs on my side of the track," Marchand told The Washington Post in 1979. After studying drama at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), she married Sparer in 1952. For the next two decades she juggled acting with raising Katie; David, now 47, a lawyer; and Rachel, 39, an opera singer. "Plenty of times we had the Coney Island special," says Katie. "Hot dogs and beans."
Marchand steadily built up solid credentials on stage and television (she was Rod Steiger's wallflower girlfriend in the original 1953 Marty), but she didn't become a recognizable star—and four-time Emmy winner—until she was cast as Lou Grant's Mrs. Pynchon in 1977. After that came film work (The Bostonians, Regarding Henry) and The Sopranos. Whatever the part, "I loooove to act," she once said.
The Sopranos, which resumes shooting in August, will have to go on without the actress Turturro calls "our mom, our leader." Producer Chase agrees: "Nancy was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Buffalo, and she was in with a bunch of very voluble Italians. But she was very much a part of the family. It's going to be really sad without her."
Sue Miller and Olivia Abel in New York City and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles