It’s fitting that The Many Saints of Newark, The Sopranos prequel, would arrive in movie theaters on the same day—Oct. 1—that the TV show premieres on HBO Max. David Chase, the cranky genius behind them both, tortured himself throughout his successful TV-writing career because all he’d ever wanted to make was great films like his hero Federico Fellini. Having created The Sopranos, a show that spawned the genre of “prestige television” when it debuted in 1999, might he he have finally become a convert to the medium and agnostic about how audiences consume his newest work? Nope. Says the famously intransigent Chase, “The one thing I wish for is for everyone to see this movie in theaters.” Like his masterpiece and legacy Tony Soprano, he’s asking nicely—for now.
Much of the interest in Many Saints before the trailer came out was in the casting of Michael Gandolfini, James’s son, to play young Tony Soprano. When I first heard it, I thought, “Maybe it’s a good idea,” but I also wondered if it might be a little gimmicky?
I had hesitations about it on the level of gimmicky. I had no hesitation in any other sense.
Even though Alan Taylor directed the film, I gather you had a role in casting. When did the idea come to you?
Well, we saw a bunch of guys that age, and it wasn’t really going that well, although that’s the typical casting process—it’s not going well until that one person walks in, and all of a sudden it’s going great. During that period, I just thought it had to be Michael. I knew Michael was an actor. I hadn’t seen his work in The Deuce, but I saw his work in Ocean’s Eight. He was a busboy, and he was on screen for a total of 17 seconds. But he was great.
He’s terrific in the film. I was surprised to read that, before he auditioned for the part, he hadn’t actually watched The Sopranos. Did you know that?
Yes, I did. But I didn’t know it until after he’d been cast.
Did he explain why? It’s his father’s most notable role.
I believe he said why, but I don’t recall now. I can assume it would be too painful. And it would take him all the way through his life, almost—he was born during the show.
Les Moonves [once chairman of CBS] famously saw the script of The Sopranos and said, “I like it, but can we take out the psychiatry?”
He said, “Look, I don’t mind the robbing and the killing and all that, but does he have to go to a psychiatrist? Is he going to take Prozac? Really? Does he have to do that?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well, OK, then—no, thank you.”
But when a Moonves is felled by a sex scandal and is run out of town, is part of you like, “Finally”?
Part of me goes, “Well, that’s interesting.” Les and I didn’t get along. I had a two-year deal at Lorimar TV that Les organized. I remember two public-relations guys came up from Washington and all the executive producers and potential executive producers on the lot were called to this meeting in which these guys explained what it was they were there for and asked if TV drama could help with the war on drugs. And I didn’t say a lot. And they went around the table, and people were saying, “Well, if we did this and we did that . . .” And then I said, “I think the best thing we could do to fight against kids using drugs is to not make drugs ourselves: boring, stupid, irrelevant shows, one ripping off another. What we could do is to make really great television. That would keep kids off drugs maybe.” And Les went, “Why don’t you get out of the business, David? Get out of it!”
You’ve said how close the Livia Soprano character was to your late mother, Norma. You’ve said when Nancy Marchand first appeared in your office to read for Livia, you found it uncanny how much she resembled her.
Yeah, it was as if she was channeling her.
Your mother didn’t live to see The Sopranos, but she was alive to see you win an Emmy in 1980 for Off the Minnesota Strip. Did she at least bathe in your success?
No. She made out like she didn’t know about it. Or maybe she didn’t know about it. I don’t know.
Could you have written The Sopranos had she still been alive?
No. When it became famous, I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s a good thing she’s passed away.”
Do you feel like your mother didn’t wish for success or happiness for you?
She wanted for me to succeed in a way that would bring acceptance and glory to her and to my father. In other words, a schoolteacher, a minister—something like that. This whole show-business thing and stardom, she just didn’t get it.
Did you experience any kind of grief when she died?
You come off to some people as a scary character. I once read the rap sheet for Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts, and I have to say some of the things he did back in the day were pretty frightening. But Tony once said, “I’ve met a lot of tough guys in my life, but when I see David, I step back.” What is about you that scares people?
I don’t know. Well, in high school, I was extremely shy, had a very low self-esteem when it came to girls because I wasn’t playing sports. But I was in a rock and roll band. And girls said about me, “He seems like a criminal, always so sour.” All my aunts told me that when I was a little, I was never smiling—even before I could talk. I remember my Aunt Mary saying, “You could stand on your head to make him laugh, and he wouldn’t do it.” I just didn’t. I don’t know.
When The Sopranos was shooting, there was a suspicion that because of James Gandolfini’s partying and erratic behavior he might not survive until the end of the series. Were you surprised when he died?
I was not surprised.
Were you destroyed?
He and I were sick of each other by that time. Was I sad? Yeah, sure. Was I upset? Yeah. But I wasn’t destroyed. At his funeral, I said I felt like his brother because brothers don’t always get along. And we did have something that we both understood that I can’t even name about where we were in the universe. We both got it. And I don’t know that anybody else got it. But I believe that he had a problem with authority figures. I was one of them.
It never seemed like Gandolfini enjoyed his fame outside the show. You would see him in the tabloids looking miserable, shooing away paparazzi. It could have been a never-ending party.
He partied quite a bit. But in the end, I don’t think he enjoyed it. I had intimate conversations with him, and he was not happy. He blamed his problems on the role: “Playing Tony Soprano is what makes me an asshole.”
Had you not cast Gandolfini, do you think that the show would have become the phenomenon it did?
No, I do not. Something was going on in the universe there. In the second or third season, Brad Grey [The Sopranos’s executive producer, who died in 2017] said to me, “You know, this is it; this is never going to happen again. You know the expression, ‘Lightning in a bottle’?” And I took that seriously.
Tony is 15 at the end of The Many Saints of Newark. When The Sopranos started, Tony was about 35. There’s a lot of terrain that could be covered in those 20 years. Do you have any plans or hopes to continue the story?
I’d have to be asked first. Warner Bros. would have to say, “Do you want to do this?” And I would [only] be interested in it if Terry Winter [The Sopranos’s writer and executive producer] and I could do it together—write and produce. Otherwise, it’s just too much work.
I’m not going to ask you if Tony died in The Sopranos finale that aired in 2007. At times, you’ve suggested he was alive and at other times that he was dead, and you’ve gotten angry when people have inquired about it. Why does it bother you so much when people ask?
Well, it doesn’t really bother me now. I mean, at that time, it bothered me that people were so offended by the ending. That’s what got me—not that they didn’t like it—that they were offended. I couldn’t believe it. You know, I was in France [when it aired], and people said, “He ran away to France.” That’s where I had a house. And we used to go there every year.
Looking back now, I was shocked by how invested the critics seemed to be about the finale. Nikki Finke wrote, “Chase clearly didn’t give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their faces. This is why America hates Hollywood.”
Well, you know what? Everybody hates Nikki Finke. Probably all her life, people have hated Nikki Finke. So I would crap in Nikki Finke’s face but not the audience’s.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.