Entertainment Michael Gandolfini plays a young Tony Soprano in prequel The Many Saints of Newark
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Michael Gandolfini plays a young Tony Soprano in prequel The Many Saints of Newark

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In the dramatic, unresolved final scene in iconic mobster series The Sopranos, viewers were left hanging as to the fate of the Italian-American mafia crime boss Tony Soprano.

Did Tony, played by the late James Gandolfini, end up slumped in a pool of blood over his deep-fried onion rings opposite his wife, listening to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Cleverly, we don’t know.

In a case of serendipity – and a bit of Hollywood – 14 years after that intensely ambiguous final episode, Gandolfini’s son Michael, 22, will reprise the Sopranos role his father made famous in HBO film The Many Saints of Newark.

This time though, from Sopranos creator David Chase, Saints will trace the life and times of a young, impressionable Tony Soprano before he becomes a New Jersey crime lord.

Like any good prequel, it will unpack how he battled inner demons between good and evil – a boy with a high IQ who’s a natural leader –  to rise through the mob ranks of 1960s gang warfare to become the head of the DiMeo crime family with official occupation listed as “waste management consultant”.

As American filmmaker Ava DuVernay puts it: “Imagine being talented and prepared enough to play the younger version of your father’s iconic role.”

“Add two of my favourite actors I’ve ever worked with: Vera [Farmiga] and Alesandro [Nivola]. Then, drop a dash of the legend Ray Liotta [Goodfellas]. I’ll be here in front of my TV until October if you need me.”

‘Family. They’re the only ones you can depend on’

Michael Gandolfini was just a 14-year-old when his father James, 51, died of a heart attack in Rome in 2013.

As he told Vanity Fair in February, he wasn’t allowed to watch The Sopranos growing up.

“My dad didn’t want me to see Tony Soprano – the violence, the angry, the mean. Of course I was on set and would visit him in his trailer, but I had never watched the show … I never knew Tony Soprano. I only knew my dad.”

Michael said his dad didn’t want him to be an actor either, telling Esquire in 2019: “I dressed up as the Scarecrow almost every night, and my dad would videotape me singing.”

“As I got older, he wanted me to play sports. I felt that burden. I wanted to make him proud. And he said, ‘Don’t be an actor; be a director. They have the power.'”

A football injury at school pushed him towards acting in a high school play and after his father died, he enrolled in acting classes and even scored a role in the local production of Shrek the Musical.

After a few decent acting gigs, it was only when his manager insisted he audition for The Sopranos prequel that he began watching the series, which premiered in 1999 until it wrapped in 2007.

michael gandolfini saints of newark
Gandolfini on set. The film’s premiere was delayed in September due to COVID restrictions. Photo: Getty

‘You steer the ship the best way you know’

Gandolfini says some of the more tender Sopranos scenes where Tony bonded with his son AJ, “left a massive impact on him”, as his father was away a lot while he was growing up.

“There’s a scene where Meadow [Soprano, Tony’s daughter] comes home late at night, and he’s sitting with a drink, and he’s like, ‘You know I love you, right?’ That hit hard,” he told Entertainment Tonight.

“The other one that crushed me was when he yells at AJ, and he gets a pizza to apologise, and he sits by his son’s bed and says, ‘I couldn’t ask for a better son’. I just knew he was talking to me in that scene.”

Sopranos final moments
Tony (James Gandolfini), Carmela (Edie Falco) and AJ (Robert Iler) in the show’s final moments at Holsten’s diner.

Gandolfini says he “had this unspoken trust that David wasn’t going to cast me if there was even a shred that this isn’t going to work”.

“It was really hard to watch my dad,” he tells Vanity Fair.

“I recorded four hours of his monologues with Melfi [Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s fictional psychiatrist] and walked around New York with them constantly, constantly, constantly playing in my ear.”

By the time we watch the two-minute Saints trailer, which opens with a pounding cover of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody and narration by James Gandolfini, there’s a tense, eerie similarity between father and son that begins to emerge.

Whether it’s the stare, the walk, the violence, he seems to slip into the gangster role with ease.

Maybe it was always a role Michael was set to inherit.

‘The one thing about us wise guys, the hustle never ends’

On July 12, Michael Gandolfini’s stepmother Deborah Lin told The New York Post it “took a lot of courage” for Michael to take the role.

“It was almost surreal to see Michael in the trailer. I know it took a lot of courage for him to take this role,” she said.

“It was very emotional. But the whole family is just so proud of him.

“His father would be very proud.”

The Many Saints of Newark is in cinemas on September 23 and will stream on HBOMax from October 1.