You don’t have to dig too deep to find glowing stories about late Sopranos star James Gandolfini. Flip through his co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa’s oral history on the series or listen to their podcast, and you’ll undoubtedly come across numerous stories about what a great guy Gandolfini was.
However, character actor Peter Reigert, who guested on the show as Assemblyman Zellman for seasons three and four, has one of the most shocking: Gandolfini used his power on set to get Reigert out of a nude scene that the actor felt uncomfortable with.
As detailed in Imperioli and Schirripa’s Woke Up This Morning, the season four episode “Watching Too Much Television” featured a scene in which Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) finds Zimmerman in bed with one of Tony’s girlfriends and whips him with a belt. In the final version, Reigert wore underwear for the lashing, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I show up at the [table] read and find out what I was going to be doing,” Reigert said. “The scene was Tony beating the living shit out of me with a belt, but in the scene description, it’s written that he pulls my underwear off.”
Reigert, who felt blindsided by the nude scene, said he was “not happy” with the script as written. Frankly, he thought being whipped by Tony with a belt in his underwear was humiliating enough. “I was going to be naked,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I would have liked a heads-up on that.”
“After the table read, I was just sitting there by myself. James came over, he said, ‘How are you with this?’ I said, ‘I’m not happy about this, man. I don’t think you have to humiliate an actor in order to humiliate a character, and I’m a little upset.”
Gandolfini called David Chase over, Reigert recalls. “David said, ‘Well, that’s the way I wrote the scene.’ I said, ‘David, I think I can act the shit out of this part and I promise you, the audience will be horrified by what they see, but you don’t have to humiliate me to get this across.’ David said, ‘Well, okay,’ and he left.”
The interaction didn’t leave Riegert feeling any better. “I didn’t know whether I was going to get fired or not, but Jimmy [Gandolfini] said to me, ‘Whatever you decide to do, I promise you I will have your back.’”
After they filmed the scene, which was perfectly violent and humiliating (even without the nudity), Reigert remembers speaking with Gandolfini.
“I said to him, ‘Do you know the word “mensch?”’ he said, ‘Yes, I think I know what it means.’ I said, ‘It means “human.”’ That’s what it really means. It’s as great a compliment as you can give. I said, ‘You are a mensch’ because he really did something.”
“At that table read, I didn’t realize that Jim recognized, on my face, that there was an actor in trouble. And he made it so it was my choice. And I know this was not the only time he did so.”
Woke Up This Morning is filled with stories of Gandolfini coming to his co-stars’ aid, offering them support with contract negotiations and money. In one instance, Schirripa recalls Gandolfini giving him $10,000 for taking the lead at a promotional appearance for a Sopranos slot machine.
This behavior extended to the rest of the cast. After backing Gandolfini during a lengthy contract dispute that kept the stars from working and getting paid, the actor gave all the series regulars $33,333 to thank them for their support and patience.
Schirripa wrote, “Years later, we found out all sorts of things he did behind the scenes. He paid off people’s doctor bills. He paid off mortgages. Often anonymously. None of us knew anything about it.”
James Gandolfini, mensch.