Edie Falco Life After the Sopranos

UPDATED 06/22/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/22/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

She won three Emmys for playing Mafia matriarch Carmela Soprano. But Edie Falco secretly longs to be a very different sort of television mom. Think Carol Brady. "I love the idea of a man who has kids," says Falco, 45, a single mom to son Anderson, 4, and daughter Macy, 1. "To have a Brady Bunch family sounds fantastic."

Even if her Mike Brady never arrives, Falco isn't likely to complain. For a woman best known for her tough-as-nails performances on The Sopranos and who is now tackling the role of a harsh, brittle nurse on the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, the real Falco is decidedly softer. "I'm just the happiest person," she says. "I've got my kids, my friends. I can handle anything."

She's certainly coped with a lot so far. In 2003, a year after finding a lump in her breast—and undergoing a mammogram that showed nothing—Falco, whose family has a history of cancer, insisted on being tested again. The result was a diagnosis of a particularly aggressive strain of cancer. Rather than feeling self-pity, Falco says, "when I got cancer, I felt like, Why not me? I am just as undeserving or deserving as anybody walking down the street." She also had a unique perspective on the situation. "I can't bear to worry about other people," she says. "I would much rather take the burden myself."

Falco also chose to keep her cancer a secret from everyone except family, a few close friends and her bosses at HBO. "I don't respond well to the sympathy thing," she explains. She shot The Sopranos around her chemo appointments. "We were shooting crazy hours, so I still looked better than everybody else," she jokes. After losing her hair, she wore a wig identical to Carmela's locks, so "nobody knew." A former runner before her knees gave out, she even found the upside to the steroids she had to take to battle chemo's side effects. "I could run five miles in 40 minutes," she raves. "Bring it on!"

Once she finished her treatment, Falco realized she was ready to take on parenthood. She says she had talked about having kids with the men in her life. "The relationships didn't pass the test of time but the kid thing didn't ever go away," she says. (In the past, Falco's been linked to actors John Devlin and Stanley Tucci.) So Falco adopted Anderson in 2004 and Macy in 2008. "It's completely unconventional. But I have very good friends who have become like surrogate fathers," she explains. Being away from that family is the only downside to starring on Nurse Jackie, which debuted June 8. "Macy is smart, funny, the cutest thing. And I am absolutely smitten with my son. I can't wait to get home and see his little face."

Though she's a "very strict" mom who is determined not to spoil her kids—"Part of the struggle made me who I am today," she says of her middle-class upbringing on Long Island, N.Y.—she still knows how to make the most of every moment. In her downtown Manhattan home, she referees Anderson's Big Wheel races ("I wave the flag and say, "Start your engines!'") and dances with her kids to "any funky music we can get on." It's a far cry from anything Carmela would do—or that Falco could have dreamed. "I could never have planned anything so beautifully," she says of her family life. "It's so much better than my wildest imagination."

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