Alumni Summer Binge Series Pt. IV: 'The Sopranos'
Arguably the greatest television show of all time and definitely the show that helped usher in the television revolution; the revolution that brought us such great television as The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. There was a new standard for television, The Sopranos had arrived in January of 1999. No longer was it just going to be cheap serials with a new storyline each week but rather a storyline carried out through fewer episodes with a focus on character development. Over its six-season run, the show was nominated for a whopping 111 Primetime Emmys, winning twenty-one, as well as, five Golden Globes out of twenty-three nominations. For part four of our Alumni Summer Binge Series, we showcase eight alumni who appeared throughout its run and the characters they played.
The show follows Tony Soprano as he climbs the mafia hierarchy while struggling with family life and newly arrived panic attacks. The attacks start to interfere with his work so he begins to see a therapist.
Max Casella (Class of 1987) once again appears in our ‘Binge Series,’ and why shouldn’t he! Here he plays Benny, who became one of Tony’s closest underlings. Benny rose through the ranks due to his close friendship with Christopher, Tony’s nephew, eventually serving as Tony’s driver and even as his protector when he is put in the hospital. At one point, due to Benny’s closeness to Tony, he is beaten to near death by one of Tony’s rivals which leads to him becoming a made man. The character first shows up in episode three of season three and is last seen as a getaway driver on a critical hit that brought both him and Tony retribution in the final episode of the series. Benny made an appearance in twenty-eight of the eighty-six episode run and stayed loyal to Tony through all of it. Casella can most recently be seen in Amazon Prime’s The Tender Bar and on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Keep an eye out for him this fall on Paramount’s Tulsa King.
Throughout the run of the show, Tony has several extramarital affairs, but none of them are as potent or haunting as the one he carries out with Gloria Trillo, played by Annabella Sciorra (Class of 1980). Gloria and Tony first meet in the waiting room of Dr. Melfi, Tony's therapist. A connection sparks and Tony begins to pursue her by showing up at her work and taking her to his boat. The relationship grows into one that seems to be meaningful to Tony, but he soon learns of Gloria’s severe anger problem. After going back and forth, Tony finally decides to call it off, much to the chagrin of Gloria, who threatens to tell his family, but once Tony sends a guy to threaten her, he never hears from her again. The woman haunts Tony, however, as he often dreams about her. The relationship occurs in a seven-episode arc. Sciorra is known for such movies as Reversal of Fortune, Cop Land, and Find Me Guilty. She has appeared on the television shows Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Daredevil, and Blue Bloods.
The late Rae Allen (Class of 1947) took over the recurring role of Aunt Quintina Blundetto in episode two of season five. Aunt Quin is the mother of Tony’s cousin Tony B. (played by Steve Buscemi), who stays with her right after getting out of prison. She’s very nervous about her son’s affairs and worries about him a lot. Her final appearance was in the episode “Test Dream” when Tony calls her in an attempt to track down Tony B., who is out seeking revenge on someone, which may cause problems for the family. Allen’s movie career jumped off from her first credit in the film adaption of the hit-musical Damn Yankees, which had garnered her a Tony Award on Broadway. From there, she had a steady career in film and television, appearing in the TV show Soap and the films A League of Their Own and Reign Over Me. She was nominated thrice for a Tony Award, winning for portraying the over-zealous public education administrator Fleur Stein in And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little.
Louis Mustillo’s (Class of 1983) Sal Vitro is an innocent gardener who works the street of Paulie “Walnuts’” mother. Sal is loved by Paulie’s mother and all the other old ladies he works for. He is struggling so much that he has to pull his kid out of college because he can’t afford it. Feech La Manna is one of the oldest gangsters around, and he’s just released from prison. He’s looking for ways to score and to take back his ground. One day he is driving by and sees Sal working a yard. He snaps, beats Sal up - breaking his arm - and declares that this is his nephew's territory and Sal can no longer work it. Paulie’s Mother is very unhappy about this and asks Paulie to do something about it. This launches a small territorial dispute between Paulie and Feech that eventually involves Tony having to settle it - splitting the territory. Sal gets part of his route back but now has to kick up a portion of profits to Paulie as well as do a couple of lawns for free to keep certain people satisfied. Louis appears briefly in two other episodes of season five, showing him working those “certain people’s” houses for free and the burden it lays on him, slowly building to the meltdown that he eventually has in episode ten of season six.
Mustillo has been working in the industry since the mid-80s, appearing in such films as Bobby, Find Me Guilty, and The Sopranos creator David Chase’s Not Fade Away, available on Prime Video. He has recurred on the television shows The Young and the Restless, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and most notably as Vince on Mike & Molly. He can be seen most recently leading the AMC comedy series Cooper’s Bar.
At the beginning of season six, Tony Soprano is brutally shot by his own uncle, who is suffering from severe cognitive decline. The next three episodes follow Tony as he struggles to stay alive in the hospital while in a deep coma. The episodes cut between Tony’s lucid, symbolic dream world and his family and friends trying to keep his spirits up in hopes that he will come out of the comma, all while the media is in a frenzy about mafia boss Soprano being in the hospital with a gunshot wound. Ron Leibman (Class of 1958) plays Tony’s main physician, Dr. Lior Plepler. While the role is a smaller one and only appears briefly in the three episodes, Leibman brings incredible depth and dimension to his character. He balances between doing his job, trying to keep Mrs. Soprano calm, and showing resentment for having to keep Newark’s top mob boss alive.
Leibman had a very successful career on both stage and screen, originating such roles on Broadway as Herb in Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures, Lenny Ganz in Rumors, and Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play Angels in America. He starred alongside Robert Redford (Class of 1959) and George Segal in The Hot Rock, George Hamilton in Zorro: The Gay Blade, and is featured in Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan. As well as recurring on Friends, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Archer. He passed away in 2019 at the age of eighty-two.
In episode ten of season four, Christopher’s drug problem reaches its lowest, affecting his home life and his business affairs, catching the eye of Tony and the rest of the crew. While normally, this would call for a final “dismissal,” Tony deeply cares for his nephew and decides to go a different route. He calls in former drug addict Dominic Palladino, played by Elias Koteas (Class of 1983), to help stage an intervention. The episode culminates in a room full of mobsters passing judgment on Chris for his drug addiction, and, well… you can imagine how that goes over.
Koteas has had a prolific career as a character actor in projects that are as diverse as the characters he’s played, ranging from a marine captain in The Thin Red Line to a teenager fighting bad guys alongside mutant turtles in the 1990 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Other notable film credits include Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. His television credits are equally as impressive, with appearances on House, American Dad, and Traffic. He had recurring roles on Netflix’s The Killing, Amazon’s recent last season of Goliath, and NBC’s hit crime-procedural Chicago P.D. - where he played Alvin Olinksy for five seasons.
Lauren Bacall (Class of 1942) plays the glorious Lauren Bacall in season six’s episode seven, “Luxury Lounge.” In a sub-plot of season six, Michael, through his newfound sobriety, develops an interest in screenwriting. His connections get him a meeting with Sir Ben Kingsly in LA. While in LA, Michael sees what celebrity status gets you - loads of free top-of-the-line merchandise. During the course of their meeting with Kingsly, they bump into Bacall with her little dog. She informs Ben that she is being given a lifetime achievement award. The meeting doesn’t go well, and Sir Kingsly turns down their offer, but Michael doesn’t want to go home empty-handed. At the end of the episode, Bacall is leaving the award ceremony with her expensive goody bag, she is mugged, viciously decked in the face, and robbed by Michael and crew.
Bacall was one of Hollywood's leading starlets for over fifty years. Her screen debut came with the hit Howard Hawks film To Have or Have Not starring opposite future-husband Humphrey Bogart, whom she would appear in three other pictures with - The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and John Huston's Key Largo. Other notable film credits include; Young Man with a Horn - opposite Kirk Douglas (Class of 1941), The Murder on the Orient Express, and The Shootist. She won two "Best Actress in a Musical" Tony Awards one for Applause in 1970 and one for Woman of the Year in 1981.
Kevin Sussman (Class of 1991) has been making a big splash recently with appearances on the Emmy-nominated The Dropout and the recent season of Better Call Saul but when he appeared in the first episode of season two he was still freshly graduated and looking for steady work. One of the Soprano’s new enterprises is running a boiler room, convincing people to invest in bad stocks, and shorting them. Kevin plays one of the bookies, named Kevin, who tries to honestly steer a customer towards a sound investment, when he is overheard by two goons they tell him to cut it out but Kevin starts to give them lip. These guys, who are trying to climb the family ladder and get the attention of Tony, decide to teach Kevin a lesson. They pour hot coffee on him and beat him to a pulp.
Kevin has appeared on ER, Ugly Betty, and Weeds. He played Stuart Bloom in The Big Bang Theory for eighty-four episodes throughout eleven seasons. His film credits include Hitch, Almost Famous, and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading. His most recent work has been as Cancer Scam Victim on the final season of Better Call Saul.
Watch the trailer here. The entire series is available to stream on HBO Max.