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COVER STORY / Just Like Family / HBO'S SURPRISE HIT `THE SOPRANOS'

THEY LAUGH, they cry. They love, they hate. They whine, they whack.

Gangsters do it all.

From Edward G. Robinson's '30s dying wiseguy wail, "Mother of mercy,

is this the end of Rico?" to the "Godfather"flicks of the '70s to the

current favorite, HBO's comedy-drama "The Sopranos," we've long been

mesmerized by the mob. How come?

"Wiseguys aren't radicals, they are not serial killers, and they are

not political," says "Sopranos" creator David Chase. "They're very

bourgeois, in a sense. So I think, in a way, people get satisfaction out

of seeing people who are not that dissimilar to them always getting what

they want and acting out their greatest fantasies."

Those particular outlaw fantasies rise to the top of the showbiz

trend list about once a generation. The '30s movie gangsters of Robinson

and James Cagney were revived in the '50s TV hit "The Untouchables,"

where vintage wrong-doers like Al Capone and Frank Nitti romped for an

hour before "untouchable" G-man Robert Stack roped 'em in. These

mobsters were still low rent, nasty and brisk, the stuff of cheap action

fodder.

Their next incarnation, however, would raise them to high art:

Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" won 1972's Best Picture

Academy Award as what Leonard Maltin calls "the 1970s' answer to `Gone

With the Wind', " an epic, elegiac study not of the mob's criminal

actions but instead its complex people and their "business" structure.

Marlon Brando brought the film prestige, and the film brought stardom to

Al Pacino and Robert Duvall. Its 1974 sequel did the same for Robert De

Niro, playing the younger Don Corleone. "Godfather II" became the only

sequel to earn its own best picture Oscar, actually enlarging the story

to an even more sweeping view of the hows and whys of "family" life,

taking in the previous and the succeeding generations. This saga staked

out the contemporary gangster territory that would later be compellingly

explored by Coppola compatriots Martin Scorsese ("GoodFellas) and

Jonathan Demme ("Married to the Mob).

And now it's time once again for another new twist.

With its surprise-hit first season climaxing Sunday, April 4, at 9

p.m. HBO's "The Sopranos" cannily traces the travails of a fictional

suburban New Jersey boss who turns to psychotherapy and Prozac under the

pressure of a changing, uh, "industry," not to mention a parade of

relations seething with resentments, needs and complaints. ("Sometimes I

think if one `family' doesn't kill me, the other family will," goes the

HBO promo.) HBO has already ordered a second season, to air in 2000.

Coincidentally in movie theaters, reliable wiseguy De Niro plays a

mob lord seeing his own shrink (Billy Crystal) in the Harold Ramis

comedy "Analyze This." Both efforts leaven their violence with

light-hearted looks at their lovable lugs, amusing us a la "Prizzi's

Honor," in 1985. (Just to show a trend usually has a more obscure

antecedent, there's the 1997 cable spoof "National Lampoon's `The Don's

Analyst,' " with Robert Loggia as a cracking capo and Kevin Pollak as

his brain doc.)

What's behind the sudden surge of interest in mobsters' minds?

"Sopranos" creator Chase quotes John Boorman, director of last year's

Irish gang flick "The General": "He thinks it has something to do with

this society . . . where there's a huge government and everything is

fractured. Mob stories are tribal stories. They get back to the

elemental tribal clan thing, and that's the appeal. And I think that's

as good an answer as any."

Elemental is indeed the key word in the modern wave. "The mob is

not only an immigrant story, a story of class and a part of our recent

history, but it's a part of American mythology, with just a lot of great

stories in there." says HBO original programing president Chris

Albrecht, who bought "The Sopranos" after the commercial networks

passed. Those recognizable character types and tales are an immediate

lure to viewers, admits Albrecht, "but it really wasn't the mob part of

the show that appealed to us. I think the mob part is what makes you

watch the rest of the show" - which turns out to be about "people who

from an emotional point of view have completely relatable problems and

issues."

WHEN "waste management consultant" Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)

isn't busy assaulting delinquent loan payers, chiseling unions or

whacking mob informants, he's setting up his failing mother in a

"retirement community," attending his kids' soccer games, or driving the

New Jersey Turnpike to his stylish upscale home in his trendy

sport-utility vehicle.

So "The Sopranos" strikes a chord not just with mob mavens and action

fans but with a broader constituency than the usual gangster tale. It's

quickly become HBO's most-viewed series, reaching more than 10 million

viewers during its four weekly airings. The show's weekly Sunday

premiere achieves nearly an 8 rating, which even much-hyped cable

wrestling shows do not reach.

Tony Soprano has become, for many discriminating viewers, one of the

family.

"He is a father, a husband, a son, a nephew, just like everyone

else," says J. Geoff Malta, a New Jerseyan who runs the Internet's

premier site on the three "Godfather" films (http://www.jgeoff

.com/godfather) and now includes info on "The Sopranos," which he loves.

"Before the show came out, I was a little concerned about yet another

`mob' title. But `The Sopranos' is much more than that - it's a

comedy, it's a drama, it's more like `alleged' real life."

No kidding. Tony Soprano confessed in January as he met his shrink,

Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco of "GoodFellas"), that he felt he'd arrived

too late to be in on "the ground floor" of the mob game. "I came in at

the end. The best is over," he moaned. Where previous generations "had

standards, they had pride," now "it's all changing," Tony gripes.

"Mobsters are selling screenplays and screwing everything up!" As his

screw-up nephew and resentful made-man wannabe Christopher (Michael

Imperioli) complains, "Guys are runnin' off, not listening to middle

management." And Tony's having anxiety attacks.

Why? Societal change. These kids today. No respect for authority.

Everybody out for himself. Chaos. There's a sense of pilfered

entitlement: As one mob functionary complains at a Starbucks-style

coffee emporium, "How did we miss out on this? We [Italians] invented

this [stuff]."

AND TONY'S GOT a current awareness of his "general stress level."

His wife (Edie Falco) is socially ambitious and way too friendly with

her parish priest. His sweet sledgehammer of a mother (Nancy Marchand of

"Lou Grant") is playing passive-aggressive games with his brain and,

worse, his jealous elderly uncle (Dominic Chianese), thinks he should be

running things. And Tony's kids are growing up too fast, surfing the Web

for mob sites showing what dad does for a living. Free-floating rage and

frustration waft through his circle of wiseguy pals.

Who doesn't identify?

"The joke for me," series creator Chase (whose previous productions

include "I'll Fly Away" and "Northern Exposure") says by phone from his

Santa Monica office last week "is that we live in this very

materialistic, narcissistic, selfish, `get out of my - - - way' era.

And Tony Soprano, a member of the mob, who invented me-first, is sick to

death of it. What he sees around him in society is too much for him,

even."

That's why America has responded so strongly to "The Sopranos."

Chase's mobsters aren't outsiders. They're consummate in-siders, virtual

all-Americans. Their creator's delving eye assumes the normalcy of his

characters' environment. He doesn't excuse their actions - the fifth

of this season's 13 episodes opened our eyes when Tony mixed his

daughter's prosaic New England college tour with a nasty old-fashioned

informant rub-out, unsettling our souls with the notion of just how

close to this "family" man / killer we'd become - but Chase sets these

events in an altogether ordinary context.

Maybe it's because Chase, a north Jersey native whose family's name

was originally De Cesare, created the series from the deepest, most

personal parts of himself. When the idea started forming, "I was in a

period of conflict with my mother at the time, and I was also in

therapy. He'd additionally been a fan of real-life mob tales and

Hollywood gangster flicks since childhood, when he caught Cagney's

"Public Enemy" on TV and "found it very, very scary - when they bring

him to his mother's door all wrapped up in bandages and `I'm Forever

Blowing Bubbles' is playing on the stereo. I had trouble sleeping for a

couple of nights.

"They say the way you master what you're afraid of is to embrace

it," he muses. Somehow, "I just began to think about the mob, and I

began to think about who were the mothers of these mobsters, because you

never see them portrayed except in the background." Finally, "The

Sopranos" began to jell: "The idea was a guy would be fighting for

survival in the mob, and his mother would take sides, and his therapy

problems would be sort of worked out on the street."

Tony Soprano is that guy, sitting down and actually thinking, for

the first time, about just what he does for a living, and how his life

took shape this way. Series star Gandolfini calls his character "pretty

tragic." He sees him as "a guy that's just trying to do the right thing

a lot of the time. Just because he happens to be in the mob doesn't mean

that you can't try to do the right thing. It's just that the way his

head is screwed on, the right thing to him is a little different from

the right thing to everybody else."

IN OTHER words, he's just a guy in his world, not a bad guy. This

show, and many of the other current portrayals, don't work from

traditional definitions of good and evil. We don't find ourselves

pulling for guys we know are bad because of their force of personality

(Cagney, Robinson) or because we've been welcomed into their world ("The

Godfather"). We're with the new breed (often with mixed emotions)

because they're individuals we come to understand from the inside out.

And they're folks we can relate to on a personal level. In the eyes of

guys like Tony Soprano - and maybe ours, too - society is going to

hell in a handbasket, and they're looking to solidify their own little

piece of purgatorial sanctuary.

Carving out a place in a hostile world is the ultimate motivation

behind today's gangster portraits. While that's always been in their

makeup to some extent, it's perceived in "The Sopranos" and other new

portrayals as not just a plot device but a deep-rooted psychological

source of their behavior. Cagney gloried in living outside the law.

These guys don't.

They're actually "businessmen," it was argued at several

mob-related sessions during TV critics' midseason press tour by the

actors who portray them. "I have a sneaking suspicion that Meyer Lansky

didn't think of himself as a gangster," said Richard Dreyfuss, star of

last month's HBO "Lansky" film. "I think that he thought of himself as

a gambler, which was a business - a slightly shady business but a

business."

Agreeing was Martin Landau, who plays Joe Bonanno in Showtime's

six-hour summer production "Bonanno: A Godfather's Story," for which

Bonanno's son Bill acts as executive producer. Landau maintains, "Joe

Bonanno left Sicily because he didn't want to join up with the Fascists.

He didn't like the Black Shirts. He was a very strong-willed man, and he

came here to become a businessman, and he did."

In a sense, the sort of wiseguys we see in "The Sopranos" have

become a kind of crime establishment - if not approved by American

society, then at least ingrained. That's why Showtime is devoting six

hours to the Bonanno chronicle, which covers 100 years. Bonanno's son

Bill notes his father "was involved with presidents, was involved with

president-makers, was involved with almost every conceivable integral

part of American history during the 20th Century . . . We're hearing the

story of a group of people who came over here from a small island in the

Mediterranean and, against overwhelming odds, had an impact on American

history."

But how did they have that impact? That's what troubles many who see

gangster portrayals through the decades as glorifying a criminal

lifestyle. While "The Sopranos," say, certainly eschews the old studio

backlots and the lush romanticism of "The Godfather" for a grittier feel

- Chase argues "it's one of the only mob shows I know of note that's

contemporary" or doesn't seem to take place "in a sort of timeless era"

- it still asks us to empathize weekly with willing, often ruthless

lawbreakers, for whom we end up rooting in sometimes discomfiting ways.

Again, shades of gray. Just ask Bill Bonanno when he went legit. One

critic at the Showtime press conference does, and Bonanno replies

squarely, "As far as I'm concerned, I've always been legit" - even

though Showtime's film shows him running his father's operation, and he

admits that if asked about murder or dirty money, "I'd have to take the

Fifth."

"You see, this is part of what this movie is about," Bonanno

contends. "What we're trying to do with this movie is to remove some of

these misconceptions that you have."

That's what the new-wave gangsters do: Lend a fresh face to people

and activities that had become cliches of a genre grown stale. Then

these shows delve beneath that surface, into their protagonists' minds,

guts and souls. "The Sopranos" and other current films zoom in for a

psychological close-up. Then, they zoom out to place those motivations

in a wider cultural context. While today's mobsters sometimes celebrate

well-worn gangster images - the "Sopranos" guys love parroting lines

from the "Godfather" flicks - their films employ these cliches as a

basis from which to examine not just the guys who've gone wrong but the

society in which they undertake their misdeeds.

That's a society of which we are all a part. Emotionally at least,

the new wave makes us an offer so personal, we can't refuse.

The Long Island Connection

NEW JERSEY accents, Long Island accents - does the rest of the

country know the difference? Probably not. Anything vaguely New York-y

sounds right, so three Long Island women fill key roles in "The

Sopranos."

Lorraine Bracco ("GoodFellas") actually subdues her trademark

streetwise city sound to play "Sopranos" psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. A

native of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she picked up that rough-and-tumble

attitude, Bracco moved with her family to Westbury when she was in the

fourth grade. Suddenly the in-charge tomboy was a minority in a Jewish

neighborhood. "Well, it was enlightening," she'd recall years later.

"Suddenly my whole world was in reverse." Not bad training for playing

the "Sopranos" shrink thrust against her will into the midst of the mob

universe.

Edie Falco (HBO's "Oz," Broadway's "Sideman") had no problem talking

like Carmela Soprano, mobster Tony's upwardly mobile, shopaholic wife.

She just used "the accent I grew up hearing on Long Island . . . the one

that I went to four years of acting school to get rid of." Falco spent

her early years in West Islip, then moved to Northport during high

school. She doesn't have kids of her own, "so I had no idea what that

was gonna feel like [playing the mother of two] . . . but they

[Soprano's kids] are two of the greatest . . . It came to me quicker

than I thought it would - just a sort of maternal thing."

One of those kids, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, still lives in Jericho. She's

finishing high school at Jericho High School and, like her character of

eldest Soprano child Meadow, is applying to colleges. Accepted early to

New York University, she plans to major in psychology. (Maybe she'll

finally understand TV dad Tony.) She's been performing since the age of

3, and counts her big break as starring in "Annie" at Hofstra, a tape of

which impressed an agent who's been finding her professional work since

seventh grade. She'd like to keep acting, but looks forward to being a

theater therapist working with disabled children.

And what about "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini ("A Civil Action,"

"8mm")? He's a 37-year-old native of the New Jersey suburbs, where his

star-making series takes place and also films. "Just being on location

helps a great deal," he says. "To shoot something like this in L.A.

would be bizarre."

Coming Soon: More Mob Tales

`THE SOPRANOS' keeps getting hotter in viewer word-of-mouth this spring

partly because it's a series that has a chance to build over a span of

13 weeks. But TV has also hit paydirt over the past several seasons

with mob portrayals in movies and mini-series ("The Last Don," "Bella

Mafia") - and more are

on the way.

CBS is looking at the pilot for "Falcone," a fall series contender

starring Jason Gedrick, veteran of both "Don" and "EZ Streets" (a failed

1996 CBS series about Irish wiseguys). It's spun off the fact-based 1997

movie "Donnie Brasco," in which Johnny Depp was an undercover agent

getting increasingly sucked in by his criminal quarry, Al Pacino.

Real life is more and more where TV seems to be heading in portraying

the mob lifestyle: NBC's "Witness to the Mob" (1998), about Sammy

Gravano and John Gotti; HBO's "Sugartime" (1995) about Sam Giancana,

`Gotti" (1997) with Armand Assante, and last month's "Lansky," with

Richard Dreyfuss.

Among upcoming productions, HBO has scheduled the June movie

"Excellent Cadavers," about prosecutors bringing the Italian Mafia to

justice, filmed in Rome and Palermo with Chazz Palminteri and F. Murray

Abraham.

Also this summer, Showtime lets 94-year-old Five Families don Joseph

Bonanno recount his own life in the six-hour epic "Bonanno: A

Godfather's Story." It's produced by his 66-year-old son, Bill, (who's

also a key character in the tale), and it stars Bruce Ramsay and Martin

Landau as the don at different stages of his life, with support from

Edward James Olmos, Costas Mandylor and Patti LuPone.

The Mob on TV

The Sopranos: Final episode of the first season premieres Sunday, April

4 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Additional airings: Tuesday at 11 p.m., Thursday

night at midnight, early Sunday at 12:45 a.m. Repeats of the entire

season begin June 9.

Films this month include:

Gotti (1996) with Armand Assante and Anthony Quinn, HBO Plus, Sunday,

April 4 at 11 a.m.

National Lampoon's The Don's Analyst (1997) with Robert Loggia, Movie

Channel, Sunday, April 4 at 7:15 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Al Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger, AMC, April 5 at noon.

The Untouchables (1987) with Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro, Cinemax,

Friday night at 2 a.m.; also on The Movie Channel, Thursday at 7 p.m.

Mafia! (1998) spoof with Lloyd Bridges' last role, PPV, currently

running.

Prizzi's Honor (1985) black comedy with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica

Huston, HBO, April 12.

Hoodlum (1997) with Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth and Andy Garcia, The

Movie Channel, April 14.

The Valachi Papers (1972) with Charles Bronson, Encore, April 15.

The Godfather Part III (1990) with Al Pacino, USA, April 20-21, (two

parts).

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