Will Uncle Junior sing?

Actor Dominic Chianese of "The Sopranos" talks about the hit show, James Gandolfini, Francis Coppola, Al Pacino and Gilbert & Sullivan.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

All the other male leads in "The Sopranos" use Francis Coppola's Godfather films merely for jokes and reference points. But Dominic Chianese, who plays figurehead mob boss Junior -- the uncle of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the brother-in-law of Tony's mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), and her partner in betraying Tony -- is a bona fide "Godfather" icon who got to deliver one of the saga's key speeches.

In "The Godfather Part II," Chianese -- sans Junior's trademark glasses -- attends the Corleones' Lake Tahoe communion gala as Hyman Roth's "Sicilian messenger boy," Johnny Ola. Even 26 years ago, Chianese was cast in a role the script describes as "an older Italian," though there's a springy elegance to his acting. His hair is already thinning, and he keeps his overcoat on indoors. But in a couple of key improvised moments, when he explains that he's brought a Florida orange for Don Michael (Al Pacino -- "Al" to the Sopranos), or asks for an "anisette," his presence is sensual, courtly and alert. It's Chianese's Johnny Ola who intones, "One by one our old friends are gone. Death, natural or not, prison, deported. Hyman Roth is the only one left, because he always made money for his partners."

As Junior, Chianese plays a wildly different variation on that same old song. Junior wants to see himself as the last of the grand, manly Mafiosi. His nephew considers him a trouble-making mannequin who pulls off petty tricks like taxing this mob's Hyman Roth, Hesh (Jerry Adler), to buttress his own pride. Of course, to Junior, Tony's visits to a psychiatrist and his estrangement from Livia are sources of shame, worry, and woe, as well as opportunity.

During a recent conversation in San Francisco, Chianese savored the many possibilities he explored in a character who's not just scared and vicious but cruelly disappointed in his nephew.

When I asked Chianese what "Sopranos" creator David Chase did to help shape his physical performance, the actor said "He gave me those big glasses. They magnify my eyes." A friend of his who heard his statement observed: "You have kind eyes, and the glasses mask them." I think both are right. Junior struggles to assert cool authority, but can't keep bits of panic and avuncular vibes from shooting out. When I told him I particularly enjoyed the way Junior harps on how Tony, as a kid, had let him down as an athlete, Chianese said, "I love those scenes!"

The cast has sworn not to answer such questions as, "Will Junior Soprano sing?" But Chianese inadvertently divulged a confidence. Although he's usually been cast in harsh urban films and series -- from "Fort Apache, the Bronx" to "Law & Order" -- on stage he has played in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (like "The Gondoliers") and in "Oliver!" (as Fagin). I asked him whether David Chase would pull a Dennis Potter and have his characters break into musical numbers the way Potter's do in "The Singing Detective." Chianese answered, firmly, "Uncle Junior doesn't sing." Figuratively and literally? "Uncle Junior doesn't sing."

But Chianese does. His dream is to play the lead in "Man of La Mancha."

You were acting in summer stock from the early '50s. What made you want to be an actor in the first place?

It started with me being a kid in New York -- and it really started with Gilbert & Sullivan. I wanted to sing. I knew I could break the mold in my family. Of course, dad was in construction. They were all bricklayers, stonemasons. And I said, "Well, let's see, I'm second generation, I can do something else." So I told myself I was gonna be a singer. I always wanted to sing. So, one day, I was on the bricklayers' bus, and I asked my father if I could get off the bus to go to an audition. After about a ten second deliberation he said, "You want to audition, huh? What is that exactly?" I said, "Well, it's for singing." And my dad said "Ok, get off, you can go to it." And I got the job. So it started that way.

What was that first job?

It was Gilbert & Sullivan. An American Savoyards production of "H.M.S. Pinafore." I was singing and dancing -- and they paid me for it! We toured ten months all over the country. I was hooked by that time. I knew I loved the business. Then I went in and out of it about ten years.

What were you doing when you went in and out of it?

Well, I laid brick again, and I was always a typist; I would go back to college again, I would try to get some credits as I kept wondering what to do.

Did you study acting at that time?

No, I didn't study acting 'til the '60s. All through the '50s I went back and forth. I would try to get some more credits toward a teaching degree because I knew my dad wanted me to be a schoolteacher. See, for the son of an immigrant who is a stonemason, to be a schoolteacher is a very high, glorified position.

Where did your people come from?

They came from the Sorrento, Naples area, Southern Italy. My dad was born here, though; he's an American. He was the first generation. Yeah, grandpa came up from Italy, grandma came up from Italy, both sides came up in 1903. I was the first one to go to college in my family.

What part of New York did you grow up in?

In the Bronx. In the Italian, Parker Avenue section. The Little Italy of the Bronx.

What changed things for you in the '60s?

By 1960, I was in Brooklyn College. Wilson Lehr, in the theater faculty, was a wonderful teacher and support for me. He just died recently. Both he and Skipper Davidson [the father of Gordon Davidson, the artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles] were mentors and encouraged me. I was 29 years old. That's when I really made the decision to be an actor. And still, I got scared, and I married a girl from Brooklyn College -- she was 18 or 19, and interested in the theater -- and then we had three kids. So I always hedged my bets, you know? It's a great story, isn't it? Because acting was that scary, you needed help, you know? We had three beautiful children and they're all grown up now. And even though our marriage didn't work out we're still friends.

Wilson Lehr offered me the lead in "The Male Animal." Through the American Educational Theater Association we went to Greenland and to air force and naval bases in and around North America. That was really exciting. Then I realized that acting was my calling. After that, it became a question of getting more experience. I began teaching school for a couple of years, but the calling was always there, always there. Eventually it split up my marriage, but I had to follow it.

So you're a 29 or 30-year-old would-be actor in New York; how did you keep the faith?

My friends would say, "You should keep it up, you're so good." People from summer stock would ask, "Why'd you give it up? You're a good actor." I tried to do both things -- teach and act. It was hard. When I did teach I was a good teacher. I taught in Brooklyn. And I found the experience very eye-opening. I couldn't follow a lesson plan; I tried to teach through dramatic arts. I took supposedly the slowest class in the fifth grade, and they put on a play, and they were brilliant. They got a standing ovation from all the other students, you can imagine. But in 1963 I was ahead of the times. It was only about two months after that that I left.

Did you then do small theater work in New York?

I was doing off-Broadway. I studied at the Herbert Berghof Studio for about six months and learned a lot. And I knocked on George C. Scott's dressing room door one time at the Circle in the Square, and his wonderful wife, Colleen Dewhurst, opened the door and she asked, "What do you want?" And I said, "I'd like to see Mr. Scott" and I walked in and saw George. We had been working in a bank together a couple of years before.

You're kidding.

No, we worked at a late night bank -- all night in a bank together, so he knew who I was. "C'mon in Dominic, c'mon in." You know, he got me on the TV show "East Side/West Side" in about a week. Got me a job on there. He was a great man. A nice man, George. I never forgot that. So that gave me a little TV credit. That was my first taste of filmmaking. But it wasn't 'til "Godfather Part II," in 1973, that I really got into films.

When I talked to the casting director of that film, Fred Roos, he said that the "Godfather" films marked the first time anyone like Coppola had made the decision that when they were doing an Italian gangster movie they were going to cast Italians. Had it been a drawback at all, before that, to be identified as an Italian-American from New York?

No. I played all kinds of roles, and I also had a musical career. I did "The Fantasticks," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," a lot of musicals. And later on, I did Shakespeare. So the ethnic stuff didn't enter that much into the theater. After "The Godfather," of course, I did "Kojak," and other TV shows. But during the '60s it was really off-Broadway. We did a lot of classic theater. It was low pay, but I was learning my craft, really learning my craft.

It seems as if David Chase went about casting "The Sopranos" in the same way Coppola and Roos went about casting the "Godfather" movies, going for New York actors, a lot of whom had backgrounds they could draw on for the characters.

Yes, it's very, very, very similar. I'm sure there were mob figures in our neighborhood when I was growing up. My father used to point out people to me sometimes in the papers. And we'd see guys with hats and he'd say "Those guys are racketeers." When I saw the movie "A Bronx Tale," I was saying "That's me when I was a kid." My father wasn't a bus driver, but he took his kid around and he let me make up my own mind about what life is all about.

And when you started to act for the camera, did you enjoy it? Or did you have trouble adjusting to it?

I did learn something, which was very interesting. When I did "Godfather II" with Pacino, my first scene as Johnny Ola was to come in, introduce myself, sit down and have a talk with Michael Corleone. And I had my speech, of course, all worked out. I knew it backwards and forwards, but as we're shooting the scene, Coppola says, "Oh, cut for a second, Dominic. I want you to change the names...you know, to change the names of the lawyers in that scene." I said, "OK." We take it again, and of course, when we I got to the lawyers' names, I don't know 'em. So he says, "Cut. That's all right, Dom. Let's take it again. Oh, by the way" he says, "change it from Sidney to Allan." So, I don't know what he's doing, right? Pacino's looking at me, staring at me. So, I'm going through, and of course, I went up again.

When you say you "went up," what does that mean?

I couldn't remember the guy's name. Because Coppola was getting me nervous. I didn't realize this was the director's technique, I had no idea. So, I try it again. At one point, Pacino gets up and walks away. And I said, "Oh my God, is this the end of my acting career?" And Al comes back and says, "No Dominic. No, no, it's not you. Don't worry about it." Coppola changed the name purposely, to get me a little edgy, and it worked. Believe me it worked. It worked very well. I learned a lot about film acting in that moment. Later, the door opens, and Michael Corleone's son is there in his white communion suit, looking just like me when I was a kid. [This bit does not appear in the finished film.] And I looked at the kid and I raised my eyebrow maybe one hundredth of a fraction higher than I had before, and Coppola said, "Cut! You did something different with your eyebrow." In film, the good directors, they're always watching you, closely.

Did you have a friendship with Pacino?


Was he partly responsible for you appearing in "Dog Day Afternoon"?

Oh, he introduced me to Sidney Lumet [who directed the film]. And I did three movies with Sidney. He is a great director. He used me as a mobster and as a judge. And, let's see, he used me as a regular, normal man, this sensible guy who was Al Pacino's father, in "Dog Day Afternoon." I just had one line, looking at a TV set. Al is robbing the bank and I look over and say, "Why rob a bank when you got a sucker for a mother?" I knew, with that line and with Sidney, it would be a great experience. Sidney worked with me alone on the scene, and it turned out well, and I knew then that acting in films was gonna be a career for me.

Your friendship with Pacino has gone all the way up to his recent documentary, "Looking for Richard."

Yes. I did "Richard III" with him on Broadway, and we toured with it; I think we went to Boston, Philadelphia...

Your Shakespearean background must have come in handy when you were doing "The Sopranos," because it, too, is about power lust, and money lust, and just plain lust -- all the things in those history plays. How did "The Sopranos" come about for you?

Georgianne Walken, the casting director, knew my work for years. I had done HBO's "Gotti" two years before that with Armand Assante and had a wonderful scene in there. And when I read for David Chase, I knew that he liked the audition, 'cause he laughed. He didn't laugh out loud -- writers don't laugh out loud, you know -- but he snickered. I knew it was real. He's a good writer. And I saw a character, a real character, in Uncle Junior.

What was the nub of that character for you?

I didn't know how it was going to progress. But when I auditioned, doing a scene between Junior and Livia, I did know that he was talking about family. He was talking about his nephew, and there was a definite relationship with this woman, Livia, who is his sister-in-law, so it was a friendly kind of thing. I used my own family, my own memories, to help bring the character out. Basically, it's what every actor does. For example, when you see Junior driving Livia in his car. The way Junior drives [Chianese positions his arms like an aging boxer protecting his body] -- an uncle of mine drove like that. I played Junior old, almost like a kind of wimp. But then, when I started to look at him as a man in his position, a capo, I gave him a kind of swagger.

Even though he's the butt of a lot of jokes, he holds himself as if he has an idea in his head of his own importance -- to borrow from your Gilbert & Sullivan, it's as if he thinks he is the very model of an old-time Mafioso.

Yeah, it's true. I don't think Junior knows who he is.

Did David go to you and say "Here's who I think Junior is?"

David is such a great writer and I think he knew that if the casting was right he could basically leave us alone. He encouraged us, of course. He directed the first episode. He watched, he'd give the OK. For example, when I drove the car -- he knew, "That's it. That's what I want." I think we were all experimenting. There was a lot of trust and I think that helped. I have such respect for Nancy Marchand and Jimmy Gandolfini, and the respect shows. We're at ease with each other. So we can have fun, kidding around. Tony and Uncle Junior like to kid each other. We do a lot of that kind of stuff on the set. When we're on the golf course, and Tony is swinging his club and making sexual innuendo -- I didn't know how he was going to do that, when he was going to swing his club. I could have killed him! There's a good feeling there.

Does that also have to do with your shared backgrounds: "my granddad did this" and "my granddad did that?"

The cultural similarities help. When you're talking about David and Jimmy -- our grandfathers were all stonemasons. They all came from the southern part of Italy and they all worked with their hands.

David Chase gives Tony Soprano a speech about his grandfather building a church.

That comes from David's soul, I'm sure. Remember that first story I told you about? About getting off the bus for the audition? Well, I had a call last month from David Chase. He said, "Dominic, I read in the paper that you were on a bus going to Clifton, New Jersey. What were you doing there?"

"Well, we were building these two-story garden apartments."

"What year?"

"1952," I said.

And David says, "I was there. I was a baby there, in Clifton, New Jersey."

He asked me to describe the building to him. Isn't that incredible? He was there. He was like five or six years old. And he remembered the building.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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