Sopranos Unveil Season 3

NEW YORK — Touted as "The only television show that could fill Radio City Music Hall," The Sopranos got a starry, rocking send-off Wednesday night 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 — ranged from Rolling Stone Keith Richards to Oscar frontrunner 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.

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 fucking 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."

Benicio 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."

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."

This season finds Tony's daughter, Meadow Soprano, played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, at Columbia University, living in a dorm and trying to date a nice Jewish-African-American boy from Los Angeles. Said the 19-year-old actress, "It's a combination of things and a lot of it is the chemistry that shines there. There's that real feeling of family."

Tony Soprano himself — or Gandolfini, at any rate — is going to surprise fans with his role in The Mexican, the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts comedy-drama that opens March 2nd.

Without giving it away, let's just say that Gandolfini plays a guy who isn't batting on Tony's team. How does he think the fans will react? "I think they're going to laugh," said Gandolfini, a shy kind of guy who spent the night surrounded by well-wishers wanting autographs and to have their picture taken with him.