How Tony's Casting Set The Tone For The Rest Of The Sopranos

"The Sopranos" is the dramatic series that made everyone take television seriously, and much of that credit is due to the lead actor, James Gandolfini. If the show's creator David Chase had gone in a different direction with the casting, the show would have completely transformed. A different actor auditioned for the role of Tony Soprano in a more comedic voice, which could have set a much more light-hearted tone for the series had Chase cast him. But Gandolfini's nuanced performance gave the show a dynamic quality that helped it to earn multiple accolades while it was on the air.

HBO's hit series tells the tale of Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), a powerful mafioso living in suburban New Jersey. His debilitating panic attacks make him vulnerable in front of his men and his enemies, so he is forced to see a therapist to treat his anxiety. The only trouble is that disclosing information about his personal life violates the mafia's strict code of silence and stoic masculinity. As he struggles with this inner conflict, his criminal practices — which have been passed down through generations — are threatened by the rapidly evolving modern world.

The staunch traditions of the mafia rubbing up against contemporary suburban life is a highly comedic premise. The show definitely has its laughs, but it is also deeply tragic. Tony is a dark character whose violent impulses and commitment to a criminal code of ethics ultimately triumphs over his emotional tenderness. He is both unpredictably malicious and yet undeniably lovable. Gandolfini himself brings this complexity to the role, and guided the writers into taking his character seriously.

The series could have been a comedy

Chase almost cast the role of Tony Soprano in a way that would have driven the show in the opposite direction. The series creator initially toyed with the idea of casting the musician Steven Van Zandt, who had never acted before, in that part. (Van Zandt ended up playing Tony's consiglieri, Silvio Dante.) Chase first saw him on the back of Bruce Springsteen records, "looking like an Italian punk," he said in an interview with Deadline. "He reminded me of Al Pacino at that time. That's what attracted me to him."

The "Sopranos" creator caught a glimpse of Van Zandt's charm when Van Zandt inducted The Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "[Van Zandt] was just very funny and adept at comedy," Chase explained. Were he cast as Tony, Van Zandt's talents would have made "The Sopranos" into "a different show. It would be more of a comedy," Chase told Deadline. "You watch Jim Gandolfini in the role and obviously it was the same words, the same funny dialogue, but it was also brutal."

Meanwhile, Gandolfini never expected that he would get the role of Tony. "I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney, but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that," the actor once said. Shockingly, Van Zandt was the one who made sure Gandolfini's casting happened. On his way into the room to read for HBO, Van Zandt saw Gandolfini sitting in the waiting room. As the guitarist explained to Deadline, "I remember saying to the casting director Sheila Jaffe, 'That guy outside. I just saw him in a movie called 'True Romance' and I think he would be a terrific Tony Soprano.'" Jaffe, however, wasn't so sure.

HBO didn't want Steven Van Zandt for Tony

When Van Zandt told the casting department he thought Gandolfini was the best fit to play Tony, "they were like, 'Well, as far as we know you got the part but we will mention that to David,'" the guitarist recalled. Van Zandt was very close to snagging the role, but "in the end HBO felt very uncomfortable with somebody who's never acted before, taking the lead." And the musician ultimately agreed with them: "I hate to take an actor's job. These guys work their whole lives, they go to classes ... and here comes a rock and roll guitar player off the street."

It may not have been Chase's first choice, but casting the experienced Gandolfini over the non-actor Van Zandt was definitely the right move. It's hard to imagine "The Sopranos" without its dramatic edge. Would comedy have successfully carried the show through six seasons, or would the humor have worn itself out within the first few episodes? It's almost impossible to say. A light-hearted reading of Tony Soprano would have been interesting, but it would not have been nearly as memorable. The dramatic tone that Gandolfini set for the series is what gave "The Sopranos" its reputation as one of the best television shows ever created.