Before Succession took over the world, HBO’s biggest hitter was The Sopranos. Beginning in 1999, the series ran for six seasons, amassing 86 episodes and a whopping 21 Emmy Awards in its eight years on air. The show’s unique premise finds its central character, Tony Soprano, a mafia boss from New Jersey, seeking out therapy after encountering personal and professional troubles. By adding therapy into the mafia genre, where it doesn’t often belong, the show offers an interesting view into Tony’s life. It balances dark humor, drama, and graphic violence perfectly to create a show that is gripping while also going beneath surface-level entertainment.
Given that Tony is the protagonist of The Sopranos, the show would be hugely different if another actor had been cast in the place of James Gandolfini, but he wasn’t always the front-runner for the role. Even discounting his competitors’ auditions, Gandolfini almost got in his own way when it came to landing the role. He walked out of his first audition mid-performance after becoming frustrated with himself, but luckily was able to meet with the casting directors once more to land the role. Learning how close we came to having another actor at the helm of The Sopranos is fascinating as it would have had such an impact on the outcome of the show as a whole. Here are five other actors who were almost cast in place of Gandolfini.
The first choice for Tony of the creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, was Australian actor, Anthony LaPaglia. He is best known for his role as Jack Malone on Without a Trace, a long-running crime drama. Upon receiving the script for the pilot of the show, LaPaglia was intrigued and wanted to meet with Chase. Initially, they agreed to move forward on the project, but LaPaglia tells the Santa Monica Mirror that he “had a different idea for the character than [Chase] had,” and he chose to do a play he’d been offered instead.
Chase later revealed that LaPaglia was an option for a movie within the show plot that didn’t end up making it either. With LaPaglia wanting to play Tony in a not-so-stereotypical mob boss way, the show would certainly have had a different feeling to it.
Ray Liotta, famous for his central role as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, is widely understood to have been offered the role of Tony in The Sopranos. However, this is actually more of a misunderstanding. The truth is that he was offered a role in the series — that of Ralph Cifaretto, which went to Joe Pantoliano — but turned it down for fear of repeating himself with another mafia role. Liotta was also shooting Hannibal, so the timing wasn’t well lined up.
Given Liotta’s experience in mafia productions and the (true) rumors that he’d been offered a role, it makes sense that people assumed the role in question was Tony Soprano. Interestingly, Liotta eventually landed a significant role in The Many Saints of Newark, which follows a teenage Tony Soprano, who is played by Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini. This movie was co-written by David Chase, so it’s evident he pays attention to actors who don’t end up in the roles offered to them, keeping them in mind for the future.
An actor who didn’t end up playing Tony but still landed a role on The Sopranos is John Ventimiglia. He auditioned for both Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts, and while he wasn’t quite right for either of those characters, the producers evidently liked him as he ended up being cast as Artie Bucco. This character is a childhood friend of Tony’s and a restaurant owner who appears throughout the entire series.
Coincidentally, Tony isn’t the first character that Gandolfini won over Ventimiglia. Both actors made it far into the audition process for The Juror which starred Alec Baldwin, Demi Moore, and Anne Heche, but at the last hurdle, Gandolfini got the part. Later, Ventimiglia was interested in joining a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire but once again, Gandolfini beat him to it.
One of the final three contenders to play Tony Soprano was Michael Rispoli. In an episode of the podcast Talking Sopranos, hosted by co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, Rispoli opened up about the auditioning experience. He revealed that during the process his manager was receiving constantly shifting feedback on who the favorite was between Rispoli and Gandolfini.
Eventually, they landed with Gandolfini, but Rispoli found it hard to hold it against him, much like Ventimiglia, who said Gandolfini is too nice to maintain a grudge against. However, losing the role of Tony wasn’t the end of Rispoli’s journey with The Sopranos, he was later cast as Jackie Aprile, who primarily appears in the first season of the show.
1Steven Van Zandt
The other component of the final three contenders was Steven Van Zandt, who, at this point, had no professional acting experience. Prior to The Sopranos, Van Zandt was best known for playing guitar in Bruce Springsteen’s band. In an interview with Cleveland.com, Van Zandt revealed that he was in the running because Chase “wanted unusual, new faces,” but his lack of experience ended up being the reason he didn’t get the role.
He did, however, have a hand in the casting of Gandolfini. After seeing him waiting to audition, he told the casting director Gandolfini had been great in True Romance and recommended him for the part. Van Zandt’s approach to Tony was more humorous than Gandolfini’s layered take and would have made for a starkly different show. Despite the fact that Van Zandt didn’t end up playing Tony himself, he ended up playing Tony’s right-hand man, Silvio Dante, a significant role for someone who hadn’t acted before.