Jerry Stiller Caused A Crisis During The Sopranos' Casting Process

The production of "The Sopranos" is littered with unrealized castings of characters. Imagine a world where Lorraine Bracco played Carmela Soprano instead of Dr. Jennifer Melfi or Robert Funaro (aka Eugene Pontecorvo) played Ralph Cifaretto and we didn't get Joe Pantoliano's Emmy winning two-season turn. Those are both worlds that came quite close to fruition.

One of the earliest "what could have been" castings goes back to the pilot. Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe, the series' casting directors, revealed on an episode of the "Talking Sopranos" podcast that the original pick for Herman "Hesh" Rabkin was a different Jerry. Instead of Jerry Adler, they were looking at Jerry Stiller. However, Stiller made a last minute decision to appear in a commercial that was shooting the same time as the "Sopranos" pilot. This last-minute back-out led to a minor crisis, as Stiller had been set to start shooting "The Sopranos" in two days' time. However, disaster was hastily averted thanks to some swift replacement casting for Hesh.

Pulling Jerry Adler out of a hat

On a late Friday in 1997, HBO got word that Stiller chose the commercial over "The Sopranos" then passed the info along to Sheila Jaffe. Since the shoot was set to start Monday, her weekend was no respite and she had to scramble for a replacement. Scrambling to find one, she lucked out when randomly decided to call agent Alisa Adler, Jerry Adler's daughter. As it turned out, Adler's father was in New York and available for the shoot.

On "Talking Sopranos," Walken mentions that she had already gone home for the evening by the time the news came down the pipeline. Thus, she didn't learn about Jaffe's rollercoaster of a weekend until her partner called her on Monday. Walken recounted:

"I didn't know anything about it until Monday when Sheila called me. She said, 'Hey, did we just have a historical weekend!' She really pulled a rabbit out of the hat. It was amazing."

The Two Jerrys

After the pilot, Adler reappeared throughout the series. Of the 86-episode run of "The Sopranos," he appeared in 28 total. Hesh is never a main character — thanks to his Jewish heritage, he's barred from official membership in La Casa Nostra — but he's a recurring face until Tony ruins their friendship in season 6's "Chasing It."

According to Walken, Jerry Stiller was series creator David Chase's personal pick for Hesh. It's hard to believe this, knowing how Adler played the part. Adler's Hesh was a cool head in the Jersey Mob; wise and funny, he was like Junior without the insecurities. Stiller, on the other hand, was known for playing eccentric, short-fused characters like Frank Costanza in "Seinfeld," and a year after the "Sopranos" pilot filmed, he doubled up as Arthur Spooner in "King of Queens." Either Stiller would've played against type, or Hesh would've been written differently to complement the actor's screen persona.

Podcast host Steve Schirripa (who played Bobby) admits that "[he] can't even picture [Jerry Stiller as Hesh]," and I'm inclined to agree. Stiller backing out of the part caused a short term crisis, but it was to the show's long term benefit.