Michael Imperioli Thought His First Sopranos Scene With James Gandolfini Was Going To Be His Last

Michael Imperioli was one of the most memorable main characters in "The Sopranos," but he almost didn't make it past the first episode. He was incredibly eager to land the role of Christopher, so much so that he lied to get the part. His lie put James Gandolfini and himself in a lot of danger and almost cost him the job on his very first day. Luckily, his co-star took mercy on him and he stayed on the show for another six seasons.

The young actor had a minor role in "Goodfellas" in the early '90s, but it did not change his career overnight. "I wasn't quite making a living ... I would go back and forth. l'd go off and do a movie, I'd go off to do a play, quit my restaurant job, come back," Imperioli explained in Woke Up This Morning. When he really needed work, he would say crazy things to land a part. "I said sometimes the most outlandish lies to get a job, he admitted to Rolling Stone. Imperioli even told the casting director of "Godfather III" that he was an opera singer. "She knew I was lying somehow. Y'know, actors can be really desperate, they'll just do anything."

When he auditioned for "The Sopranos" in front of series creator David Chase, Imperioli wasn't going to let anything stand in the way of being Christopher, even if he had to tell a white lie or two. "I spent my adulthood in New York City so a lot of us don't drive, but I got cast basically to be Tony Soprano's driver," he explained to Kelly Clarkson. It seemed like no big deal — until his first day on set, with Gandolfini in the passenger seat.

Imperioli crashed a car his very first day on set

For a guy who had never really driven a car before stepping onto the "Sopranos" set, Imperioli didn't do a bad job — at first. "You looked like you knew what you're doing," his co-star Steve Schirripa recalled in Woke Up This Morning. The scene required more than just driving from Imperioli, though. "I'm driving backward down the sidewalk, with Jim next to me, with extras getting out of the way, trees on both sides. And I have to look at the mark in front of me at the same time, and talking," he explained. "Even if you know how to drive, that's a lot to do."

Still, he managed to accomplish the scene successfully for a few takes. "I did it four or five times and, finally, the assistant director says, "Go twice as far and twice as fast." So, I go twice as far, twice as fast, and boom! I go right into a tree, really hard. The airbags go off, Jim's head goes back. I'm thinking, 'I'm done. They're going to fire me,'" Imperioli remembered.

Gandolfini played the show's main character, Tony Soprano, and Imperioli could have seriously injured him. Thankfully, the lead actor had a great sense of humor. "I was mortified. Then I looked at Jim, and he just starts hysterically laughing," Imperioli recounted. "When the wheels fell off the bus, he found humor in that," Schirripa added.

Gandolfini laughed it off

Not everyone on the "Sopranos" set took Imperioli's accident with as much grace as Gandolfini. "Now, the prop person who was in charge of the cars was Barbara Kastner, a very tough New Yorker, and she's furious at me," Imperioli confessed. "So when she finds out I don't have a license, she gets really pissed off! She wants to file a union violation complaint, and I'm like, 'Oh my God.' But they just bring over another Lexus... and say: 'All right, do it again,'" he recalled.

In a way, Imperioli acted very similarly to his character on his first day on set. He says Christopher is "not the brightest guy, but he is very ambitious." Imperioli was ambitious enough to lie about knowing how to drive to get the role but clearly didn't think far ahead enough to consider the consequences.

A different reaction from Gandolfini could have cost Imperioli the role, but the late actor wasn't that kind of guy. "He was a very good team player. He was very protective of the crew and the cast and wanted people to be respected and have a good time," Imperioli told Rolling Stone. Rather than make Imperioli feel guilty, Gandolfini instantly put him at ease. This disastrous scene was the first of hundreds that they would shoot together, and it sparked a long friendship between them, up until Gandolfini's death in 2013.