After Tony
New York magazine|September 27 - October 10, 2021
David Chase returns to The Sopranos, the masterpiece he’s been unable to escape since it went off the air 14 years ago
By Matt Zoller Seitz

DAVID CHASE IS TELLING STORIES AGAIN.

The 76-year-old creator of The Sopranos is seated at the kitchen table of a production office in Santa Monica, eating takeout Mexican food and telling me about the time his paternal grandfather, Joseph Fusco, confessed to killing a man. Fusco told the story to a then-12-year-old Chase, who had been sent to Fusco’s apple farm in Hudson, New York, for a week during summer vacation. They were sitting in the kitchen one night after dinner, green apples piled in a bowl between them. “He was telling me he murdered a guy in Buffalo,” Chase recalls. “They got in an argument in a bar. They went outside.” Things escalated—Fusco hit him in the head with a brick. The other guy was a romano— Roman—though not from his grandfather’s area. “Fusco was bad news. Bad guy.” Chase pauses a moment, staring at his rice and beans in a Styrofoam box. “Who knows if it’s true?” he says finally. “But why would you tell that to a 12-year-old kid who’s staying with you? Who the fuck does that?”

Everything about the anecdote is uncut Chase, from the intensifying violence of the confrontation (you can imagine Chase’s grandfather grabbing the brick of a pile in the bar’s parking lot after realizing he might lose the fight) to the chilling mundanity of a then-middle-aged man relating it to his grandson. It makes me think of all the horrific but realistically awkward brutality meted out during The Sopranos’ eight-year run—Tony (James Gandolfini), eyes were swollen from having Raid sprayed into them, killing another mobster by strangling him and smashing his head against a tiled kitchen floor. It’s also the kind of moment that happens throughout the series’s forthcoming prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, a panoramic gangster film set in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Newark, New Jersey, directed by Alan Taylor and co-written by Lawrence Konner, both Sopranos veterans. The film follows junior mobster Christopher Moltisanti’s (Michael Imperioli) father, Newark mob soldier Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who was discussed in the original but never portrayed onscreen.

In the 14 years since The Sopranos ended, Chase has only done one other project: the 2012 rock-and-roll roman à clef Not Fade Away. He started to write a Sopranos movie in the summer of 2018, following 11 years of turning down requests from Warner Bros. to make a theatrical spinoff. “Even when Jim was alive, there was talk about doing a literal prequel, with us playing ourselves maybe ten years earlier,” recalls Imperioli, who reprises the role of Christopher as a disembodied voice in a cemetery. “Jim was like, ‘What, are we gonna wear wigs and girdles, like Star Trek?’ ” Chase was also wary—ever since The Sopranos, all Hollywood wanted from him was more gangster stories. His attitude was “never—but also, never say never.” Gandolfini’s death, in 2013, didn’t shut the door. He settled on Dickie Moltisanti as a way to reenter the Sopranos universe without rehashing the same characters and situations.

The Many Saints is a fall-of-the-old, rise-of-the-new gangster picture, with Dickie struggling to hold on to his position in changing times. But the emotional backbone of the movie is Dickie’s toxic mentorship of the young Tony, played as a teenager by Gandolfini’s son, Michael. It’s in this plotline that Chase gets to revisit themes that were at the center of the show: the familial, biological, cultural, and historical forces that shape our personalities, for better or worse, in large ways and small, often without our consent or even our knowledge, and how the arc of each person’s life starts to seem incoherent and absurd once you realize it’s all just a collection of poorly sourced, often self-serving anecdotes about people who might not even be alive to corroborate the facts.

Chase has an image as a pessimist provocateur, and he played that up during the run of the show. He did cameos as a bored Italian sneering at Sopranos character Paulie Walnuts in a Naples café and the voice of God tormenting Tony. He sat for magazine portraits that suggested marble sculptures of doomed Roman senators. He has a look that makes people ask “What are you so depressed about?” even if he isn’t actually sad in that moment. He’s got a warm, lighthearted, even goofy side. Chase loves bad puns and slapstick mayhem. If he takes a liking to you, he’ll text or call just to stay in touch, sometimes at unexpected moments. He’s quick to laugh—an almost childlike giggle that becomes a doubled-over cackle when the jokes turn really dumb. But from my perspective—that of someone who has known David for more than 20 years, ever since I was writing about TV for the Newark Star-Ledger, the paper that the bathrobe-clad Tony Soprano used to pick up at the end of his driveway— I sense depths of melancholy whenever he circles the reality that he’s pushing 80 and can’t tell all his untold tales in the time he has left, and that even if he could, he’d have trouble getting them made.

DAVID IS AS COMPLICATED as any of his fictional creations. He’s a hardware-store owner’s son who had few artistic role models in his family and tried in his youth to be a rock-and-roll musician and then a film director. He settled into network DTV writing in the 1970s and later moved to cable, where he created an uncategorizable series that transformed the industry. “It really challenged movies as vehicles for characterization, honestly,” says Corey Stoll, who plays young Uncle Junior in The Many Saints. “It’s rare that you could reach the depths of characterization in two hours that you could with 86 hours of a show as complex as The Sopranos.

But any expectation that David would have industry carte blanche after the end of The Sopranos disappeared once the streaming revolution came, shifting the media spotlight away from anti-hero-driven stories set in some version of reality and recentering it on unscripted dramas, competition shows, and blockbuster documentary series; epics like Game of Thrones and The Crown, where the sheer hugeness of the production was part of the appeal; and shows that celebrated compassion and kindness, like Parks and Recreation, Schitt’s Creek, and Ted Lasso. “I read an article the other day about Ted Lasso. It basically went, ‘Thank you, Ted Lasso, for relieving us of all these scumbags!’” David says, then laughs. “I wanted to say, ‘I wasn’t the one making you watch those other shows, the ones with all the scumbags! You did that to yourself!’”

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