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David Chase

NO LONGER TELEVISION'S UNSUNG HERO, "SOPRANOS" CREATOR DAVID CHASE TALKS ABOUT HIS MOTHER, AMERICAN ENTERTAINMENT AND THE MOB MENTALITY OF THE NETWORKS.

BY ROBIN DOUGHERTY

Although he's been the brains behind some of the most compelling and unusual dramas on TV, David Chase isn't a household name along the lines of David E. Kelley or Steven Bochco. Still, Chase has executive producing and writing credits for CBS's "Northern Exposure" and NBC's critically acclaimed civil rights drama "I'll Fly Away." He also created the short-lived 1988 CBS cult hit "Almost Grown," about a couple whose marriage is sketched out in their relationship to pop music. That show, with its textured emotional realism, now seems like a precursor to "My So-Called Life." Despite his relative anonymity, the Chase touch is something that many viewers already recognize.

Chase's days as an obscure TV writer, though, may soon go the way of Jimmy Hoffa. His new series, "The Sopranos," which recently debuted on HBO, tells the story of Tony Soprano, a mobster -- oh, excuse us, a "waste management consultant" -- who suffers an anxiety attack at his son's birthday party and ends up on the psychiatrist's couch, a Prozac prescription in hand. What precedes his midlife crisis? The same things that bedevil every other middle manager living in suburban America. Tony (James Gandolfini) is tortured by subordinates who won't stay in line, a management breakdown at his firm, two spoiled kids, a demanding wife and a mother who can no longer live on her own but won't go gently into assisted care.

And there's one more thing. The family of ducks that lives around Tony's pool has flown off, nearly breaking Tony's heart.

Chase talked to Salon by telephone about the show's origins, how television characters communicate with each other and the difficulty of finding a good home for a thoughtful drama on network TV.

Can you explain the genesis of the show? Was the original idea to explore the midlife crisis of a mobster?

People keep calling it a story about a mobster with a midlife crisis, and maybe it's evolved into that. Actually, it's based on my own family dynamic -- a guy who is in therapy because his mother is driving him crazy. But who cares about a TV writer and his mother? I began to apply my family dynamic to mobsters. I mean, who are the mothers of these guys? Are they all little old ladies in black dresses?

When we first meet Tony, he's savagely beating someone up in broad daylight in a rather matter-of-fact way. Were you worried that it might be hard for us to sympathize with Tony Soprano if we saw what he does for a living?

One of the problems of modern-day American entertainment is this overwhelming concern about "Will we like him?" That has led us to a fraudulent kind of filmmaking in which the character is always saying, "Love me." I didn't think about whether you would like him or not. He's a mobster. This is what he does for a living.

Still, Tony is a guy who's endearing in his foibles. But, like him or not, there's always the chance we may be provoked beyond ever wanting to know more about him. Is there any type of violence you wouldn't show him engaged in?

It's not about provoking people. I want to tell a story about this particular man. I want to tell the story about the reality of being a mobster -- or what I perceive to be the reality of life in organized crime. They aren't shooting each other every day. They sit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who owes who money. Occasionally, violence breaks out -- more often than it does in the banking world, perhaps.

And when it breaks out, sometimes it's funny? Like when Tony and his crew try to shake down a Hassidic Jew who won't back down?

And sometimes it's funny. I don't know myself how to explain what is funny about that scene.

It's also amusing that the therapist is not outraged about Tony's activities. How much does she actually understand about what he does for a living?

She absolutely understands, but to admit it to herself would be to have to confront the question of why would you bother trying to help someone like that. There is a squiggly kind of morality going on right there in the therapist's office. I mean, therapists have to be morally neutral. For it to work, you become their only concern. The rest of the world doesn't exist.

You've got a great cast. Lorraine Bracco was in "GoodFellas," so it seems natural to find her in the role of the shrink who understands gangster life. Edie Falco (from HBO's prison drama "Oz"), who plays Tony's wife, Carmela, is also quite believable as a woman on the periphery of the mob. But Nancy Marchand? As Tony's guilt-loading mother? She's nearly unrecognizable.

I saw actress after actress after actress who just did not get it. Most of the time they were over the top, or played the Italian mother as very dramatic. Nancy just got it. She is a genius. And it's unbelievable how similar she is to the person the show is based on [Chase's mother]. My wife just stood and watched the filming with her mouth open. It's uncanny.

How did you sell the mobster-in-therapy idea? Even for HBO, the premise is a little offbeat.

I first pitched it as a movie. [The upcoming feature film "Analyze This," starring Robert De Niro as a mobster and Billy Crystal as a therapist, is not related to "The Sopranos."] Then I got a development deal with Brillstein-Grey. They asked if I wanted to do "The Godfather" as a TV series, and I said, "No, but I have this idea. It's a family drama and you could still have all the internecine warfare." Fox passed on it, and then it went through all the networks and they all passed on it.

NBC let go of "I'll Fly Away" and it had to be rescued by PBS. Likewise, "Almost Grown" lasted barely three months on CBS, partly because the network didn't seem to know what to do with it. Is "The Sopranos" a project that could only exist on cable?

I don't know why network TV couldn't bring you this show. I don't see why it should be that cable is the only place for it. Well, maybe because network TV is about people talking and communicating and coming out with a resolution at the end. With "The Sopranos," people talk to each other and they really aren't communicating. That's what happens in life. We're all kind of speaking the wrong language.

On network shows like "The Practice," for example, people get all bent out of shape about the things that are important to them and they tell each other exactly how angry they are. They get past it. How often does that really happen? In real life, they get angry and swallow it and do some bizarre passive-aggressive thing.

Is the Mafia Web site that Tony's daughter logs onto for real?

One of the writers knew about The John Gotti Tribute Page, which is a real Web site -- a kind of clipping service, actually -- for the mob. For other details about mob life, we talked to a former wise guy. But that's all I'm allowed to say.
SALON | Jan. 20, 1999

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon.

"The Sopranos," (9 p.m. Sundays, repeats 11 p.m. Tuesdays, HBO)




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