Over fifteen years after its finale aired on HBO, David Henry Chase’s The Sopranos is widely lauded as one of the greatest narrative series of all time. But one of its most indelible stars—Michael Imperioli, who played mafia boss Tony Soprano’s protegé Christopher Moltisanti—never could have pictured that when he read a script for the series’ first episode, which aired on January 10, 1999.
“When I read the pilot, I wasn’t like ‘This is gonna change television.’ I mean, it was okay!” Imperioli recalls in a new interview with The A.V. Club’s own Saloni Gajjar. “I’m not being facetious, really.”
Elaborating on his initial hesitance, Imperioli says he couldn’t tell if The Sopranos was supposed to be a spoof, a comedy, or what... not to mention the fact that at the turn of the 21st century, an HBO series didn’t exactly bring to mind the glamor it does today.
“The idea of a series on HBO did not have any prestige to actors at all at that time—it actually was the opposite. Being on a series didn’t really interest me, because I had mostly done movies and plays,” Imperioli recalls. “But I thought [Christopher Moltisanti] was kind of interesting in the pilot, he had some interesting things to do, and I really liked who they were casting, a lot of people who I had worked with before and who I knew.” One of those names: Lorraine Bracco, who Imperioli had previously worked with on Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas.
Although Imperioli enjoyed filming The Sopranos pilot, he (and his castmates) still had misgivings about the chances of moving to series. Some of the questions they considered: “Are people gonna wanna watch a show about mobsters? Are they gonna watch a TV show with sex, violence, and profanity?”
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However obvious the answers to those queries may seem today, Imperioli points out that in 1999, a series quite like The Sopranos “really hadn’t happened.” Nevertheless, the pilot was picked up, and the “excited” crew got going on a full season— that’s when, by Imperioli’s account, the masterful and seminal nature of the series came into clearer view.
“When we started doing the episode 2, episode 3, every script was better and more complex,” Imperioli shares. “Then we really started seeing ‘Whoa, this is really special.’”