If you’re heading to In Conversation with the Sopranos at Mesa Arts Center on Saturday, October 16, don’t expect the night to be “a Harvard professor’s thesis on the show.”
That bit of advice comes from Steve Schirripa, who starred on The Sopranos as Bobby Baccalieri — a.k.a. Bobby Bacala — from 2000 to 2007. He just wants people to know they can expect an event that is “light and loose.” He means no disrespect to profs or anyone who wants to hit the mic during the event’s Q&A portion and wax intellectual about the show — all topics are on the table. If you need to share your thoughts about the season finale in a public forum, go for it. If you have a theory you want them to help you analyze, bring it on.
Schirippa will be joined by castmates Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Vincent Pastore (Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero) for this night of riffing and remembrance.
Since the show ended, cast members have done these live events, and this go-around, the tour is comedy-driven.
“We have a comedian (Joey Kola) hosting, we tell stories, we show clips from the shows, talk about things that happened behind the scenes and during filming,” Schirripa says. “There’s a book that’s an oral history of The Sopranos coming out in November, and Michael [Imperioli] and I have the Talking Sopranos podcast — this is an extension of those things,” he adds.
Until he landed the Bacala role, acting was just a hobby for Schirripa.
“There was no career at that point — I worked in a casino, and I had a couple of lines in this movie or that TV show. It was fun, and there was no pressure.” Things felt a little weightier as he slid further into being Bobby.
“Once I got on the show, then came the pressure to stay on the show. You get a little taste of being a part of this incredible once-in-a-lifetime show. Getting on any series is next to impossible, so getting on The Sopranos was like hitting the lottery twice.” Schirripa says that one of the best parts was his character’s evolution. “They grew Bobby from a guy with a couple of lines and a shrug of the shoulders, taking care of Junior, to marrying Tony’s sister and sitting to the right of the boss at every Sunday dinner.”
Though many relationships between Sopranos’ characters came to brutal, bloody ends, Schirripa says the cast sewed some unbreakable family ties. “We were there for years, me for eight or nine, some of us for more; you go through everything together — break-ups, marriages, everything. With some shows, it is like going to the office — you take your lunch, do the work, go home, and come back the next day. The Sopranos was different—it was a family, very much so. I don’t know if it was consciously or subconsciously, but [show creator] David Chase did hire people from similar backgrounds. Not all of us, but a lot of us, are Italian-Americans.”
“We traveled together and did appearances,” he continues, “went to each other’s events, charities, book signings, play openings — we supported each other.” The familial bonds that were formed made it indubitably painful when the show’s leading man James Gandolfini died in 2013.
“He was our dear friend, you know, and leader, both on and off camera,” Schirripa says.
Schirippa says that in many ways, David Chase and Tony Soprano are interchangeable. “He is basically Tony Soprano, and the character Livia [Tony’s mother played by Nancy Marchand] was his mother.
The actor credits Chase’s unflinching resolve with what made the show so strong. “He is a person who knows what he wants. This (The Sopranos) is his show. He was going to do this the way he wanted, and he did — good, bad, or indifferent.”
The show changed the face of television and raised the bar for original programming, from broadcast networks to premium cable channels. And importantly, it holds up. “There is a lot about it that’s relatable,” Schirippa says. “A lot of young kids are watching The Sopranos now. We’ve been off the air for 14 years, and not a day goes by where you don’t hear about people streaming it. Maybe the cars and phones and computers are different now, but otherwise, the show holds up like it was written yesterday, and that’s what resonates.”
As to what else Schirippa is up to, he’s currently starring in the CBS series Blue Bloods, and he’s having a fine time.
“I don’t need much in life,” he says. “I have a good job. I have a good family. A couple drinks, a good sandwich, a couple of good friends — that’s all I want. I’m a simple guy.”