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Sunday, March 12, 2006 - The end of the Sopranos finally begins - The end of the Sopranos finally beginsThe end of the Sopranos finally begins
Mar. 12, 2006. 07:07 AM

Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.

— Michael Corleone, The Godfather: Part III

Some of us have been waiting almost two years for this — the return of The Sopranos, the critically acclaimed, audience adored, industry honoured cable drama, starting its sixth and final season tonight at 10 on The Movie Network.

It's been a long wait — but then, it'll be a long season, with a dozen regular episodes running through the end of May, and then an additional eight "bonus" shows, which should start shooting about a month after that, to air next January.

But if you think you've had it tough waiting for The Sopranos, imagine what it must be like to be one.

The scrutiny. The secrecy. The uncertainty. The endless heaping plates of pasta. Months of intense 16-hour shooting days ... followed by many more months of enforced inactivity.

"It's terrible," acknowledges Vince Curatola, better known in Soprano circles as the family's New York liaison, Johnny "Sack" Sacrimoni.

"We finished production of the fifth season in December of 2003. It came on the air March '04, and came off the air early June '04. Then we did not go back to work until April 29, '05.

"It's tough. You're home a lot. You're washing your car a lot. It's like, `Gee, am I really on television? Because I don't feel it.' The cheques are there, but that's it. You still want to work."

And, in between Sopranos seasons, there is only so much work you can do.

"We're all under contract," Curatola says, "so we can only do little bits of television — we can't be series regulars or anything else during that. You can maybe do a movie, if one comes your way. But that's about it."

And even then, when you do come back to work, on The Sopranos you never can quite be sure of what you're coming back to. Or for how long. The show has an unusually high mortality rate.

"You just don't feel you're in the groove," the actor allows. "You never know what you're going to be doing. Anything can come at you from out of left field."

But, even in a worst-case scenario, you at least get a good meal out of the deal — invariably at Il Cortile, a small, family-owned restaurant in New York's Little Italy, traditional site of what Sopranos insiders morbidly refer to as "the whacking party."

It is a longstanding cast tradition when someone's character is scheduled to die.

"We take them to dinner," confirms Michael Imperioli, the actor (and occasional screenwriter, on and off screen) who plays the newly minted Soprano captain, Christopher Moltisanti.

"Lots of rituals (on the show) revolve around food. But when you're asked to dinner, it's not such a good thing. You gotta remember that."

"Actually," muses his erstwhile mob boss, series star James Gandolfini, "I think we may owe a couple ..."

Nobody laughs.

At this level, among the regular, less at-risk actors (not coincidentally, the ones who tend to get the movie work), there is an understanding that these inordinately long lay-offs are essential to their visionary creator/producer, David Chase.

A notorious hands-on micro-manager, Chase insists on — and is happily given — ample time to map out and plot the entire season himself before work even starts on the scripts.

"He's never taken a hiatus," Gandolfini marvels. "Maybe once ... but even then, I'm sure that somewhere, some part of his brain is thinking about it 24/7."

"I know that everybody was always not very happy with us with our long hiatuses," concedes co-star Lorraine Bracco, a.k.a. Soprano therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi.

"But I also think that it's also been extremely healthy for everyone. Besides, you know, the writing process, which David needs, because he edits and writes ...

"But I think it's been good for all of us, too. I mean, it's not like, you know, 11 months out of the year we're on the dole."

Still, 21 months is an awfully long time to wait for anything — within the same elapsed period, a woman could produce two entire children and have another one well on its way.

Is it too long to wait for a mere TV series? Particularly one now only 20 episodes away from saying "Ciao" forever?

"I have no idea," shrugs Chase. "I really don't know. When I talk to people, they seem to want it to come back. But if somebody wants to watch another show, that's great."

"Yeah," agrees Edie Falco, a standout once again this season as the long-suffering Mob wife, Carmela Soprano.

"Nobody signed anything committing to watch this for as long as it's on the air. If they find something else, then God bless 'em."

But really, what are the chances of that? We're already all emotionally invested. We're not about to give up on The Sopranos — especially not this close to the end.

The end. Needless to say, a closely guarded secret. No one but Chase knows where this is all leading — not even the Sopranos themselves.

Nor do they wish to.

"I don't know what he's got planned for the ending ... and I don't want to know," Gandolfini insists.

"I would never want to know," agrees Falco. "I wish I didn't even know that we were ending when we're ending, because now I have this sort of gravity about the time I'm spending with these people I love that I wish I didn't have. But it's inevitable."

And no one is quite ready to consciously confront how that is going to finally feel.

"Right now, it's just about being with these people one more year," echoes Gandolfini. "This is the year we have, and let's enjoy it and really look at it and remember it."

"There's still a lot of work to be done," says Chase. "I'm just sort of still in the middle of it. So I'm not really there yet with any kind of emotional reaction.

"I think we're all going to be really sad when it's ended. I mean, everybody, I'm sure, will feel relieved and, to a certain extent, hopefully feel that we've done good work. There won't be that huge amount of responsibility and work to do anymore. But I'm sure we're all going to be very sad."

At least they'll have each other.

"We're a very close cast," Curatola affirms. "I don't think two weeks go by where we don't each see three or four of the others. We're on the phone constantly. We do a lot of travelling together. We do appearances. We all hang out together in Manhattan. That will continue. We're like an extended family."

The show, then, would be their family legacy.

"That in and of itself is a great calling card," acknowledges Curatola. "It's made every one of us famous."

None more so than James Gandolfini. "A lot of us, when we started out — well, except for Lorraine (Bracco) — but a lot us were reasonably unknown," Gandolfini says. "You learn so much from all the stuff that happened through this ... about success and money and celebrity, all kinds of stuff. It's been an incredible life lesson that none of us, I don't think, would have ever had if we hadn't had this opportunity."

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