The cast of The Sopranos embodied their characters so much so that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing them, and yet one of its core characters, Carmela Soprano was almost played by a different actress from the show. For her role as Carmela, Edie Falco garnered two Golden Globes, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Primetime Emmys, and a well-deserved place in TV history. Falco brought a freshness to the role that resonated with The Sopranos‘ darkly comedic and distinctly suburban spin on the Mafia genre. The name Carmela is a reference to Carmela Corleone, the matriarch in first two Godfather films, but their similarities end there.
Falco herself agrees that she’s not your typical gangster’s wife. In 2012 she told Vanity Fair that she was not the first person she would have thought of to play “an Italian-American Mob wife… I would have cast me as Dr. Melfi,” she recalled, “but luckily, I was not in charge.” Even series creator David Chase initially imagined the role going to a genre veteran. Chase wanted Lorraine Bracco as Carmela, but Bracco – who’d received an Oscar nomination for her role as Karen Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas – felt that the character was well-trodden ground for her.
In the same VF interview, Bracco explained that after GoodFellas she “was offered every Mafia gal, girl, wife, mistress, daughter available” but felt that there was no way she could play the role better than she already had. Not wanting to be typecast, Bracco told Chase that she wanted to play Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi. Chase ultimately agreed that having Bracco play Carmela would be too obvious. He gave her the role she really wanted instead, found the perfect Carmela in Falco, and the rest is history.
The fact that Falco felt she could have played Dr. Melfi – and that Chase originally wanted Bracco to play Carmela – is a fascinating reflection of the characters themselves and how they relate to one another for Tony. Throughout the series Dr. Melfi reminds him that he finds strong-willed Italian women (like herself, Carmela, Gloria, et al.) irresistibly enticing due to his troubled relationship with his mother Livia.
Tony choosing Dr. Melfi as his therapist was certainly no accident; in their first session he tells her that when picking a psychiatrist he had “a choice between two Jewish guys and a paisan…so I picked the paisan.” Carmela and Dr. Melfi are foils for one another, variously serving as surrogates for an unrealized maternal ideal after which Tony never ceases to yearn. For her part, Dr. Melfi’s reluctance to drop Tony as a patient despite the numerous ethical dilemmas she faces as a result of seeing him is certainly related to their shared heritage. As an Italian-American woman raised in New Jersey she necessarily grew up in proximity to (or at least with a familiarity of) Mafia culture, but exists at a remove. As a result she finds herself by turns attracted to and repulsed by Tony, who serves as a reminder of all the different ways her life might have gone. This dynamic makes for a rather dicey therapeutic relationship, and some very compelling television.
Bracco’s career experience clearly informed her performance as Dr. Melfi, whose background, upbringing, and life choices mirrors Bracco’s own acting history and refusal to “become” another mob wife like Karen Hill. Bracco’s refusal to play Carmela resulted from an aversion to being typecast, whereas Dr. Melfi’s decisions served to distance her from the stereotyped association of Italian-Americans with organized crime, but these are analogous in many ways. Her performance conveys an intimate knowledge of Dr. Melfi’s values, desires, and conflicts because she likely understands them. Although Bracco cast herself against type by refusing to play Carmela, that decision is both evident in her performance as Dr. Melfi, and is arguably the key to its success.