The pilot episode of The Sopranos aired on January 10, 1999, but it was shot in the summer of 1997 and completed later that year. As is the case with almost all television pilot episodes, The Sopranos’ pilot was produced without advance knowledge of whether or not the show would ultimately be green-lit for an entire premiere season.
Because of this uncertainty, the first episode of The Sopranos differs substantially from the rest of the series. It’s considered one of the best pilots ever made, but it is markedly different from the rest of the show in a number of ways.
Tony Looks And Sounds Different
Right away, Sopranos fans will notice, upon repeat viewing, that Tony Soprano is considerably thinner in the show’s pilot episode, and his accent is much more subtle.
Between the time the pilot was filmed and the rest of season one was green-lit for production, actor James Gandolfini gained weight for the role and trained with a dialect coach to give Tony his signature Jersey accent. His performance in the pilot episode is excellent but much more understated than it is throughout the rest of the series.
The Pork Store Is Different
Filming locations are a common difference between pilots and subsequent episodes because pilots are often produced on a shoe-string budget. In the Sopranos pilot, the guys are seen talking shop at a table outside Centanni’s Meat Market, a real-life butcher shop in Elizabeth, NJ that’s still open to this day.
When the show was approved for full-scale production, the design team built the better-known Satriale’s Pork Store set at a rented storefront space in Kearny, NJ.
Tony As Narrator
The pilot episode begins with Tony starting therapy with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. He proceeds to narrate the events of the episode to her, and to the audience. This concept of Tony as the show’s narrator didn’t end up carrying over to the rest of the series, though it made for a clever premise.
Pilot episodes are difficult to write because there’s a lot of exposition to establish in a short period of time. Tony narrating the story helped keep the episode moving, while efficiently relaying critical information about the characters and their relationships to the audience.
Who’s The Boss?
When Tony insists that his uncle Junior call off his plans to whack an associate in Vesuvio’s restaurant, owned by Tony’s longtime friend Artie Bucco, Junior responds, “You may run North Jersey but you don’t run your uncle Junior!”
This line would seem to suggest that Tony is the boss of the Jersey crime family. However, in episode 2, it’s established that Jackie Aprile, Sr. is actually the boss, who’s mulling his choice for successor. Jackie, however, was not written into the pilot episode.
Silvio’s Role Is Different
When Tony and his associates are first seen talking shop outside the pork store, Silvio Dante shows up. Tony asks him what he’s doing there, and Silvio replies that “Gabriela sends me down here for the Gabagool.”
He’d certainly have been part of any high-level business meeting. In the pilot, however, his role in the outfit is obviously less important. He happens upon this sitdown by chance while going to the meat market for more innocent purposes.
Tony Gets His Hands Dirty
During the show’s first real “action sequence,” Tony and Christopher run down one of their debtors with Christopher’s car, and beat him up in broad daylight, as onlookers watch from a distance.
Throughout the rest of the series, Tony was less likely to get his own hands dirty on this kind of a job, and certainly wouldn’t be seen committing such an egregious act of violence in the middle of the day, surrounded by witnesses. Throughout the remainder of the series, Tony was much more guarded, perhaps even paranoid, when it came to being seen breaking the law.
“A Don Doesn’t Wear Shorts”
When The Sopranos’ first season aired, real-life wise guys mostly appreciated the show’s accuracy in its depiction of mob life. There was, however, one notable element they took issue with.
In the pilot episode, Tony is seen wearing shorts while barbecuing at his son’s birthday party. The show’s creator, David Chase, received some negative feedback for this wardrobe choice. He recalls having been told by multiple viewers that “a don doesn’t wear shorts.” The first season already having wrapped, the creative team wasn’t able to correct this mistake until season 2, when the costume selections became more realistic.
The Casting Is Different
Because pilot episodes are filmed without securing long-term commitments from every cast member, it’s not uncommon to see certain actors swapped out for others for the same character. In The Sopranos pilot, Father Phil and Tony’s mistress Irina are two examples of characters who were portrayed by different actors in the pilot than in the remainder of the series.
Michael Santoro and Siberia Frederico played the two roles, respectively, in the pilot. They were replaced by Paul Schulze and Oksana Lada throughout the rest of the series.
Adriana Is Basically An Extra
Actress Drea De Matteo plays, Adriana La Cerva throughout most of the show. She’s featured in the pilot but has hardly any lines. She’s credited simply as “Hostess” in the show’s end credits, owing to her brief appearance in Vesuvio’s restaurant.
David Chase was impressed with De Matteo’s performance and wrote her into the show as Christopher’s girlfriend, which meant her character would from then on have a name. She did, however, keep her job at Vesuvio’s for the time being, until Christopher makes her quit when he becomes a made man.
The Bada Bing Is Different
Throughout The Sopranos, the guys’ headquarters is located in the back of their gentlemen’s club, the Bada Bing. In the pilot, however, Tony, Christopher, and Hesh gather at what looks like a different club to talk business. As the three men converse, Silvio approaches the table and informs the waitress that drinks are to remain on the house for the rest of the night, which would imply that Silvio is the owner of the establishment.
In subsequent episodes, it’s clear that the mob family owns the Bada Bing, and that such illicit conversations would be had in private, in the back room.