'Sopranos' Stars Made by the Mob

April 8, 2007 — -- In the back alleys and empty warehouses of New Jersey, wielding a gun and spouting obscenities might make a man a mobster.

In Hollywood, it can make an actor a star.

But what happens when TV's most iconic mafia series comes to a close?

"The Sopranos," the Emmy award-winning HBO drama that begins its final run Sunday, turned a cast of little-known actors into familiar faces.

Now, as the eight-year-old show winds down, these actors are staring down the barrel of careers made by breaking knuckles and dumping bodies. Undoubtedly, the "Sopranos" stigma will stick to these actors for years to come. But some will have an easier time living with their mob ties than others.

Call it the curse of the cult phenomenon. Variety television editor Jo Adalain explained that as with so many landmark television series -- "Friends," "Seinfeld," "Sex and the City" -- "The Sopranos" created a class of iconic stars for whom typecasting is inevitable.

"You've got Drea [de Matteo] playing a version of herself from 'The Sopranos' on 'Joey' on NBC," Adalain said. "The smaller mobsters like Tony Soprano's advisers star in commercials as mobsters. I'm sure the Italian-American community loves that."

Alan Sepinwall, a Newark Star Ledger TV critic who has covered "The Sopranos" since its start, likened the show's legacy to that of "Star Trek." While the Kirks and Picards of "The Sopranos" will likely live long and prosper in the industry, those who played smaller roles may find fame only in the drama's equivalent of a Trekkie convention.

"James Gandolfini's a great actor. He will get other work. Edie Falco will get other work, even if it's just on the stage. Michael Imperioli will get other work. … But if Bacala shows up in another movie, I think people will laugh and go 'Hey, Bacala!" Sepinwall said, talking about Steve Schirripa's "Sopranos" character, Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri.

Mob-Won Publicity, Money

Sepinwall pointed out that while it may be inseparable from "The Sopranos," Schirripa's celebrity has furthered his career. Thanks to his reputation as a lovable mobster, the actor has co-written a handful of books espousing the Bacala lifestyle, including "A Goomba's Guide to Life" and "The Goomba Diet."

Schirripa's not the only cast member to embrace the stereotypes that come with his "Sopranos" role. Allen Rucker, author of "The Sopranos: A Family History" and the new "The Best Seat in the House " said that even before the HBO series got big, Vincent Pastore (Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) and Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo) flaunted their roles as run-of-the-mill mob guys.

"They called themselves the gangster's actors guild, GAG," Rucker said. "Probably the only acting experience they'll ever get is as gangsters. They were born to play gangsters. You'll always see them as gangsters."

Some of "The Soprano's" bigger names have managed to shirk their mob alter egos, at least temporarily.

Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) stars alongside a rooster in the off-Broadway play "Chicken," about a Bronx family prepping for an illegal cockfight.

Falco's Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards her role as Carmela Soprano, though won in 2003, have helped her score roles on the big screen and stage.

After chronicling her battle with anorexia in the 2002 book "Wise Girl," Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano) became the spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association.

But the biggest Mafioso of all has maintained a low profile aside from the show. Though studios covet Gandolfini -- he was reportedly paid $5 million to star in 2001's "The Last Castle" -- the actor has appeared in only a handful of movies since the start of "The Sopranos."

Sepinwall predicts a flood of offers for Gandolfini after the series wraps -- and maybe a new iconic role in Hollywood.

"I'm sure once this ends he's going to get a lot of offers," he said. "At the very least, he could probably take over Gene Hackman's career as the character actor villain."

It's almost impossible to picture Gandolfini without remembering Tony Soprano's throaty Jersey bark and legendary blowups. But with a reported salary of $1 million an episode, Adalain said Gandolfini doesn't have to worry if he's cast as a mob boss for the rest of his life -- or as nothing at all.

"It's going to be very hard for Gandolfini to find a role that can show off another side of him," Adalain said. "Or he can just sit there and count his money."