DID Tony die at the end of The Sopranos? It’s a question that has continued to torment and divide fans of the beloved HBO series since its final episode controversially dipped to black almost 17 years ago.
The finale, Made in America, aired on June 10, 2007, and was watched live by almost 12 million Americans.
In the closing scene, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) walks into a local Jersey diner to have dinner with his family and selects to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on a table-side jukebox.
One by one, members of the Soprano clan arrive, beginning with Tony’s wife Carmela (Ede Falco), followed by their son AJ (Robert Iler), while their daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is having trouble parallel parking outside.
Each time a Soprano family member walks into the diner, a bell rings above the door, and the viewer is transported to Tony’s point of view.
As Journey’s ’80s hit blasts throughout the eatery, there is a recurring shot of a man wearing a “Members Only” jacket sitting at the counter, constantly looking shiftily over his shoulder at Tony.
Eventually, the man walks past Tony and goes into the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Meadow manages finally to park after several failed attempts. She starts running towards the diner’s entrance, and, as the bell rings, right before Tony looks up, the screen cuts to black.
The blackout lasts for an agonizing 10 seconds before the final credits roll, bringing an epic and ambiguous end to Tony Soprano’s story.
Many of the millions of stunned Americans watching on were left furiously screaming at their television sets, believing their cable connection had cut out at the most pivotal moment before the closing titles showed.
Among them was Joseph R. Gannascoli, who appeared for five seasons in the beloved mobster epic as Vito Spatafore.
Gannascoli told The U.S. Sun he watched the finale with a group of his friends in South Philly.
Calling the closing scene the “greatest ever ending” of any TV show, he recounted: “I was like, ‘What the f**K? Tell me your TV didn’t just go out.’ And everybody else was like, ‘What the f**k?’
“I was scrambling checking the cable, banging the side of the TV, and then after, I don’t know how long […] the credits came up and I went, ‘Holy s**t!'”
TONY SOPRANO’S DEBATED FATE
What happened to Tony Soprano next remains the topic of fierce debate even today.
On one side of the fence is the “Tony was whacked” camp, who believe the kingpin was most likely assassinated by the man wearing the Members Only jacket when he returned from the bathroom as Meadow was walking inside the diner.
As the theory goes, the man wearing the jacket entering the bathroom mirrors Tony’s favorite scene in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone takes a planted gun behind a restaurant’s toilet to avenge his father’s attempted assassination.
Additionally, backers of the theory point to the tolling bell above the door as evidence of Tony’s grisly fate.
I was like, ‘What the f**K? Tell me your TV didn’t just go out.’ And everybody else was like, ‘What the f**k?’
Whenever his family enters, the audience sees Tony’s face before being transported to his point of view as they approach the table.
But on the third toll, as Meadow is about to enter, we never see her walk in, with the ensuing silent darkness serving as Tony’s point of view because he’s no longer alive.
The silence of death is something the show foreshadowed on numerous occasions in prior episodes.
In one example, during an earlier episode of the final season, one of Tony’s closest associates Bobby Baccalieri (Steven Schirripa) tells him, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” while the pair are theorizing how they will each croak.
Bobby is later gunned down inside a hobby store by a mob rival. In that episode, Tony holds a gun Bobby gifted to him for his birthday and flashes back to their conversation about death.
On the other side of the fence, however, are more optimistic viewers who believe Tony didn’t die, and the searingly intense final moments of the show instead serve as a metaphor for the life of paranoia that awaits him in the years ahead.
In that camp is Gannascoli, who says he can’t bring himself to believe that Tony was killed.
He told The U.S. Sun: “I don’t think he would’ve got killed in front of his family like that. Usually with a big boss, you wouldn’t do that in front of his family.
“So I like to think all that tension building – and this is just my theory – but I don’t feel like Tony died. I just think he went on living […] I just think that the door closed and that was it. Life went on. That’s how I feel.
“I don’t want to think about him getting killed or arrested and so on. So that’s what happened, for me.”
‘TOO EMOTIONAL’ TO RE-WATCH
The creator and chief writer of The Sopranos, David Chase, has offered various explanations for the closing scene over the years.
In 2019, during a conversation with Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz for their book, The Soprano Sessions, Chase referred to an abandoned ending idea as a “death scene” for Tony.
Then in a 2021 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Chase seemed to all but confirm that Tony was killed but shared he originally had another end in mind for the mobster.
“The scene I had in my mind was not that scene. Nor did I think of cutting to black,” said Chase.
“I had a scene in which Tony comes back from a meeting in New York in his car. At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed.”
Chase said changed his mind when he drove by a small restaurant two years before the finale and said to himself “Tony should get it in a place like that.”
He also told the outlet the audience’s fixation on Tony’s fate “bothered” him.
“I had no idea it would cause that much—I mean, I forget what was going on in Iraq or someplace; London had been bombed!” Chase said. “Nobody was talking about that; they were talking about The Sopranos.
“It was kind of incredible to me. But I had no idea it would be that much of an uproar. And was it annoying? What was annoying was how many people wanted to see Tony killed. That bothered me.”
Wednesday marked 25 years since Tony Soprano and his colorful cast of mobster associates first appeared on the small screen.
Gannascoli said starring in the now-iconic show both changed and “made his life.”
Today, while he still acts sparingly, Gannascoli works for the majority of his time as a chef, hosting private dinner parties for up to 50 Sopranos superfans at a time, where she shares behind-the-scenes secrets and even reenacts some of the series’ most beloved scenes.
For the most part, though, Gannascoli said he very rarely watches the show back, finding it too painful for two key reasons.
Firstly, he says it’s heartbreaking seeing the late, great James Gandolfini in motion.
Gandolfini died suddenly from a heart attack at age 51 while vacationing with his son in Rome, Italy, in June 2013 – almost exactly six years after the final episode aired.
“I don’t like seeing Jimmy, it’s too emotional,” he said. “To think he left behind a little baby and his son […] he’d just found so much happiness and at 51, to just be gone like that, it’s cruel.
“So I don’t watch it. If I see a clip on TikTok or social media I’ll watch it sometimes, but it’s hard seeing him.”
And for Gannascoli, the filming of the show brings back painful memories of his own, making it difficult to watch himself too.
During the final few series, Gannascoli needed a double-hip replacement but waited until after his character was killed off early in the sixth season to get the surgery.
He explained: “My hips, the way I walked, I was in such pain. I was taking 10-12 Advil a day when I was shooting and I was always kind of embarrassed about the way I moved.
“As soon as they killed me, I had the double hip replacement the same day and I recovered within a month. The pain was gone and I was able to walk, sort of gingerly – but I didn’t need a walker.
“I wish I’d had it done between seasons, but I had no way of knowing how the surgery was going to go.
“So that [also] brings back painful memories of doing things [on set], like getting out of a car awkwardly or going down steps.
“But I’m proud to say I never missed a day filming, I was always there when they called me.”
CHALLENGING MOBSTER CONVENTIONS
Gannascoli joined the cast of The Sopranos in the first season when he was cast as a customer named Gino in a bakery run by Tony Soprano’s protégé, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).
He was brought back for the second season as Vita Spatafore, a member of the Soprano crime scene family where he remained a largely peripheral character until season six when his character’s sexuality became a central plotline.
Vito’s sexuality was first hinted at during season 5 of the show when the portly mafia captain was spotted by the boyfriend of Meadow Soprano giving oral sex to a male security guard near a construction site.
The subject wouldn’t be raised again until early into the following season when a leather-clad Vito was spotted dancing with other men inside a gay bar by members of the Jersey mob.
Word of Vito’s secret life soon got back to Tony Soprano, forcing him to flee New Jersey for New Hampshire, where, briefly, Gannascoli’s character is provided a glimpse of what life could look like outside of the mob, away from his fiercely homophobic comrades.
It’s in New Hampshire that Vito falls in love with a local chef and volunteer firefighter he affectionately nicknames “Johnny Cakes”.
The pair enjoy a sweet, whirlwind romance before Vito decides to head back to his old lifestyle in New Jersey, only to be violently killed on account of his sexuality.
The topic of homosexuality in the mob wasn’t just new to The Sopranos but to the mafia genre as a whole – and Vito’s character arc earned the swooning praise of critics.
The idea to explore Vito’s sexuality had actually been Gannascoli’s own.
During filming for season 4, Gannascoli had been reading the true crime book, Murder Machine, which chronicles the life and crimes of the DeMeo crew, a Brooklyn-based gang connected to the Gambino crime family.
One member of the DeMeo Crew was a man by the name of Vito Arena, a prolific car thief, robber, and murderer who was involved in scores of killings during the 1970s and 1980s.
After he died in 1991 during a failed armed robbery, Arena became known as “The Gay Hitman” after it was revealed he had a younger lover named Joey Lee who was several years his junior.
Jerry Capeci, who co-authored the book, told Uproxx in 2021 that Arena and Lee often posed as father and son and would rob doctor’s offices together.
“I don’t know if I’d say he was openly gay, but everyone knew that he was gay, if that makes sense,” Capeci said of Arena.
Gannascoli said he was fascinated by Vito Arena’s story and thought elements from his personal life could add an intriguing dimension to his own Vito Spatafore.
He recounted: “The reason why I wanted to do the role was it was going to be a challenge for me.
“Growing up in Brooklyn […] being a mobster was easy because I knew their mannerisms, the way they talk, the way they eat – that’s easy. But this was going to be something totally the opposite of who I am.
“This was going to be a challenge to prove I can act and carry my weight along with these other great actors.”
A HOPEFUL PITCH
Going about pitching the idea to the show’s writers was difficult, Gannascoli said.
He didn’t want to go above his station and suggest it directly to the creator and chief writer David Chase and he didn’t want to mention it in front of any of his cast mates for fear of coming off as a “douchebag” by angling for a bigger part.
“It was tricky […] I had to find the right moment,” he added. “And one day I kind of whispered it to this woman, Robin Green, who was one of the writers along with her husband Mitch Burgess.
“And I said, ‘Hey Robin, I’ve been reading this book and there’s this true story about a gay mobster, I think it’d be kind of interesting [for my character] and I’d be willing to do it.
“And she said, ‘Oh, really?’ And I gave her the book and that was it. That was during season four, and at the beginning of season five they asked me for the name of the book again and I gave it to them.
“So that’s how I broached it with the writers and I guess they took it to David Chase.
“And I understand that he later gave an interview and said that’s the only suggestion he’s ever taken from an actor, which I’m very grateful for.
“That [decision] changed my life.”
I don’t like seeing Jimmy, it’s too emotional. To think he left behind a little baby and his son […] he’d just found so much happiness and at 51, to just be gone like that, it’s cruel.
Gannascoli wouldn’t be made aware of the Vito pivot for several months.
Paranoid that key plot lines could be leaked to the press, The Sopranos showrunners stopped sending the wider cast full scripts after one actor accidentally left his behind in a taxi, Gannascoli said.
Instead, he and the other supporting actors would be sent only their sides – or lines from the script – meaning so much of what was set to happen to their characters in the season ahead was unknown before the very last minute.
But the supporting cast had moles on the inside – and Gannascoli’s source worked for the crew.
“Everyone was paranoid about getting whacked,” Gannascoli shared. “And the first thing I’d ask is ‘what’s going on in the next episode? Am I getting killed? Or am I in it? Do I have any good scenes?
“And this one time I asked him am I getting killed, and he told me ‘No, you’re okay.’ And I asked him if I had some good stuff and he said ‘Yeah, you have some good stuff.’
“So I thought, great I’ll wait until we get the script to do the [table] read-through.
“And as I was walking away, he gets up and says, ‘I forgot to say. You’re going to be blowing a guy.’
“I said, ‘What? Are you f**king kidding me?’ And immediately, I thought holy f**k they’re actually doing it. My friends are gonna break my balls forever.
“I knew real wise guys [mobsters] in my neighborhood, and I thought how are they gonna f**king react?”
A ‘LIFE-CHANGING’ BREAK
By the time the table read for season 5, episode 9 – titled Unidentified Black Males – rolled around, James Gandolfini took Gannascoli to one side to make sure he was comfortable with doing the scene in question.
He remembers Gandolfini telling him, “Listen, if you’re not comfortable doing this and you don’t want to do it, we can go talk to David [Chase] and you don’t have to do it.”
Moved by Gandolfini’s gesture, Gannascoli assured him he was fine to film the scene and that the shocking plot development had actually been partly his own making.
“I told him that, you know, I kind of asked for it. And obviously, it’s not what I had in mind, but as long as we do it and don’t just forget about it […] then I’m happy to.
“[The writers] said, ‘Listen, that’s all you’re going to see this year is that scene. But next year be ready because it’s going to be a big year for you, so that’s what I did.”
After the episode aired, Gannascoli remembers being shunned and shot dirty looks by real wise guys in his neighborhood in Brooklyn.
He also claims to have been confronted by the relative of a known mobster while out clubbing one night, resulting in a physical skirmish that had to be broken up by bystanders.
But otherwise, he said his performance was well-received by friends and Sopranos fans alike.
Gannascoli watched the ninth episode of season five with a group of 20 of his friends and didn’t tell any of them what they were about to see.
Recounting the viewing party, he said: “When my head popped up with that security guard […] they all fell off their chairs. They were f**king stunned.
“And right at that time, I used to go to this restaurant every Thursday. It was a busy restaurant, and there were a lot of girls there.
“And everybody stood up as I walked in and started clapping their hands. Some of the wise guys didn’t, but I met my wife that night. She was working behind the bar.
“That moment was groundbreaking [for TV] and for me it was pivotal, it changed my life for the better and opened up so many doors.
“If it didn’t happen who knows where I’d be? I’d probably still be alone in an apartment, smoking cigarettes which I gave up 15 years ago.
“My life would’ve probably been totally different. Who knows if I’d even still be alive.”
Before landing the role of Vito Spitafore in The Sopranos, Gannascoli originally trained as a chef, working in kitchens across Manhattan and New Orleans, while dipping his toe into theatre along the way.
During this time, Gannascoli also racked up a dangerous gambling habit and, in 1990, lost $60,000 betting on a single football match.
To cover his losses, Gannascoli was forced to sell a stake in a restaurant he co-owned and fled New York for LA.
There he began focusing his energy more on acting than cooking.
Three years later he landed a small part in the movie Money For Nothing, starring his future Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini, kick-starting his acting career.
He was cast in David Chase’s show six years later and hasn’t looked back since.
Despite the abundance of on-screen feuds on The Sopranos, behind the scenes, Gannascoli said the cast of the show felt like a tight-knit family where everyone looked out for one another.
He said everyone knew how special the show was and relished each moment existing within its rich universe.
“I’m a self-taught chef and a self-taught actor,” said Gannascoli.
“And I went from this little scene in a bakery into this prolific role on the greatest show ever made.
“I constantly just think about how blessed I was to be a part of it.
“I’ll probably never do anything like The Sopranos again, and I’m okay with that.
“It’s like having a great World Series in baseball, you bat close to 400, you win a ring, and then you fall by the wayside and nobody really hears much from you again.
“And I’m okay with that.”