'Sopranos' Season 3 Premiere

— Touted as "the only television show that could fill Radio City Music Hall," The Sopranos got a starry, rocking send-off for its much-anticipated third season, which premieres March 4 on HBO.

A long list of notables, led by the cast — James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Aida Turturro, Michael Imperioli, and Steve Van Zandt, among others — at Wednesday night's premiere ranged from Rolling Stone Keith Richards to Oscar front-runner Benicio Del Toro and Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

They cheered the season's first two episodes — the only shows scripted by series creator David Chase this year — and then hiked up Sixth Avenue to the New York Hilton ballroom, where 2,000 guests feasted on classic Italian cuisine and danced to oldies.

Still in Love With Tony

As the night continued, one question seemed obvious: Why has The Sopranos, with its beleaguered mob family and Tony Soprano's equally beleaguered family, taken such a firm grip on the cultural and pop landscape?

"I have no f---ng idea!" said an exultant Bracco, who promises that her character, psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, will not, despite the wishes of many fans, ever sleep with her troubled patient Tony Soprano: "How does David [Chase] say it? I'm not a trampy idiot."

Others, however, had given much thought to what makes the HBO series soar. Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), who returns as Dr. Melfi's psychiatrist for three episodes, thinks it's obvious why The Sopranos has scored: "It's so goddamned good. You just don't know what you're going to feel. One moment you're laughing and then crying."

Keith Richards, a buddy of Van Zandt's, says, "Everbody's so great in it. Also, I have several friends involved in the show. And they play my songs, which really helps."

Van Zandt, wearing his trademark headband and not his Sopranos hairpiece, predicts that one element is the series' sustained excellence: "The quality keeps up this season and that makes it so exciting."

Giuliani confessed to being a fan of the show, which has drawn the ire of some Italian-American groups: "I've seen every show from the first two seasons, some two or three times," he told Mr. Showbiz. "Tonight's episodes were great."

Del Toro, a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominee for Traffic, cited the acting: "That cast: Gandolfini, Falco, Van Zandt … I'd absolutely be willing to do something if they ever asked me."

Meadow Heads to College

Christopher Meloni, of HBO's edgy Oz and NBC's not-so-edgy Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, mentioned the series' awesome "mix of humor and violence and recognizable human foibles." While Meloni has been a series regular on Oz, HBO's other hit dramatic series ("We're the ugly stepsister," he joked), he revealed an offer that he had, perhaps unwisely, refused. "When [The Sopranos] first started, they said I could come and audition and they faxed me one page," he says. "I said, 'I can't do this!' I didn't know what my character was about. But I still think about it."

Richard Belzer, also of SVU, noted, "As all American are, I'm obsessed with the mob. But the writing is so great and it's remarkable how after the Godfather films, this can seem so fresh."

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