Steven Van Zandt Created The Character Of Silvio Long Before He Was Cast In The Sopranos

Before starring on HBO's hit prestige drama "The Sopranos," Steven Van Zandt's claim to fame was as a solo artist, hit songwriter, activist, and member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. He scored the memorable role of the wingtip-wearing consigliere Silvio Dante on "The Sopranos" despite no acting experience. As advisor to crime boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Van Zandt's Dante is more than a wise guy caricature; Silvio is among the most level-headed members of Tony's crew, mediating meetings and executing orders but unafraid to tell his boss the truth (which Van Zandt compared to working with The Boss). In Brett Martin's "The Sopranos: The Complete Book," Van Zandt describes Tony's lifelong friend as "the only member of the family who was happy where he was" with few ambitions beyond those in his backstory – a background created by Van Zandt himself.

Co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa's comprehensive deep-dive book "Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos" contains firsthand insights on the show from cast and crew, including Van Zandt. There, the multi-hyphenate reveals how he shaped Silvio Dante's bio:

"I wrote that biography. And I also figured if I can look in the mirror and see the guy, then I can be the guy. So I found out where John Gotti got his clothes made. I decided what he looked like, and the fact that he romanticized the earlier years in the mob, the forties and fifties, all that. And designed the hair to be more of a throwback, old-school, fifties hair. Those guys never did change their hair. I wasn't thinking about my age, so I had him growing up with Tony Soprano and they were best friends."

First, some context

Van Zandt's performance throughout the show's six seasons is especially magical when you consider that he had done a whole lot of singing, strumming, and songwriting, but hadn't acted a day in his life before stepping foot onto the set of "The Sopranos."

On episode 60 of The Talking Sopranos podcast, the Jersey activist recounts how he was cast in the series as the eventual result of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for Jersey rock band The Rascals. It's a gem of a speech in which he praises The Rascals as the first true rock band and downplays The Beatles as "some guys making noise" over in England at the time. You don't have to be a Rascals fan to feel the genuine appreciation emanating from Van Zandt:

His delivery had the audience cackling and piqued the interest of Chase, who directed "Sopranos" casting directors Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe to locate Van Zandt, which they did through his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (a "School of Rock"-esque non-profit which creates arts-driven educational materials for K-12 classrooms) and invite him to come audition for the show.

Van Zandt raised a highly relevant issue: he wasn't an actor. Chase's prophetic response: "Yes you are an actor, you just don't know it yet." Van Zandt, Chase plotted, would be one of the new faces that would ground the series. He further tells the podcast hosts that he had read for, and was briefly cast as, Tony Soprano before HBO vetoed the decision with the argument that an experienced actor play the lead role. And thank goodness they did.

A bio and the birth of the Bada Bing!

In the book, Van Zandt further reveals that the backstory crafted for Silvio came from a pre-"Sopranos" treatment he had written, which he describes as a recalibrated version of one of the most celebrated classic films of all time. He tells Imperioli and Schirripa:

"I've finished the actual script, but at that point it was just a treatment of a retired hit man who opened a club. He was living in the past, with a Copacabana type of club set in contemporary times. But you walked into this club and you were back in the fifties; it had the big bands and the Jewish comics and the dancing girls."

The owner of this club even had the name Silvio Dante, and he was a picture-perfect progenitor of the stylish right-hand man of the DiMeo crime family, from the slicked-back hair down to the sovereign rings. Van Zandt reportedly brought the club concept to the "Sopranos" showrunner, who was into it until the budget cloud came to rain on the parade.

"Basically I was rewriting 'Casablanca.' A lot of things happened in the club. The five families had their tables, the police commissioner had his table, everybody had their table. And then Silvio Dante would be hired to do special jobs. He said, "Well, this is a great idea. I think this show could use a club." And then he comes back a couple of days later and says, 'We can't afford what you're talking about, but we'll make it a strip club.'"

There you have it. "The Godfather" may have popularized the phrase "bada bing," but you can thank Steven Van Zandt and David Chase for the shake joint, the place of one of the best musical moments of the series.