Copyright (c) 2001 Jerry Zezima. All Rights Reserved. Terms and Conditions.


Casting Call: The Sopranos




By Jerry Zezima


I was looking for a piece of the action. I wanted to be a made man. I tried out for "The Sopranos."

I had read in the paper about an open casting call for the wildly popular HBO series, which has earned almost unanimous critical praise and 18 Emmy nominations for its portrayal of a dysfunctional mob family. The casting call was to be held two days later, on a Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at Harrison High School in Harrison, N.J.

According to the paper, casting directors "will be looking for Italian-American-looking actors of all ages (minimum age: 16 years), both men and women, for speaking and non-speaking roles." Applicants were instructed to report to the school auditorium and to bring photos of themselves with contact information.

This was my big chance, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get into a business like which there is no business, a profession in which, if I stabbed enough people in the back, I could rise to the level of capo di tutti cappuccino, or boss of all espresso coffee.

Besides, after almost 25 years in journalism, I wanted to go legit.

The one thing I had going for me is that I not only look like an Italian-American, I am one. Of course, not all Italian-Americans are in the mob the vast majority, in fact, are model citizens but I figured that HBO was looking for the type who would not be out of place at the Bada Bing.

To make sure I looked the part, I wore my only suit, a gray tapered job with a small checked pattern and a three-button Italian design. I also wore a slate gray shirt, shiny black shoes and a crisply knotted tie flecked with gray, blue and red. To enhance the effect, I donned a pair of shades.

"You look like a mobster," my wife said as I prepared to leave.

"Why don't you go start my car?" I shot back.

"Because," she replied, "I wouldn't be caught dead in it."

I didn't blame her. I drive a '93 Ford Taurus with 100,000 miles on it but, at present, no muffler. It's not exactly the kind of car Tony Soprano would drive. So I took my wife's '97 Nissan Altima for the trip from our home on Long Island (pronounced "Lawn GUYland") to New Jersey (pronounced "Joisey"), home of the fictional Soprano family.

I spent most of the two-hour drive thinking up nicknames for myself Jerry the Mustache, Uncle Jerry, Jerry Brazil Nuts and rehearsing the kind of dialogue that, as you know if you watch the show, shouldn't be repeated in polite company.

I began to repeat it when I got off Exit 15W of the New Jersey Turnpike and immediately found myself in what looked like a gangland funeral procession.

It was 10:15, and for the first time in my life I was actually early for something, but now it appeared as if I wouldn't be there when the doors opened. After sitting in traffic for half an hour, I parked on a side street about a mile away from the high school and began to walk.

A moment later, I heard a voice behind me. "Are you going to the Soprano thing?" asked a young woman in a tight gray T-shirt and black pants. She was accompanied by another young woman, who wore a black pinstriped vest that was unzipped halfway to her navel. She also wore a pair of matching pants that looked like they had been applied with a spray gun. She had a tattoo of a black cat on each shoulder.

"This better be worth it," said Carla Caruso, the more conservatively dressed of the two, who noted that she doesn't have cable and has seen "The Sopranos" once. She said she is more the intellectual type. "I'm a novelist, a college English professor and a dominatrix," Caruso informed me. "The only reason I'm here is because of her," she added, pointing to her friend, Susan Beshar, whom Caruso identified as "a 'Sopranos' freak."

"I'd do ANYTHING to be on the show!" Beshar gushed. Before I could ask her to elaborate, a guy in a crummy red hatchback pulled up and said, "They closed the auditions! They opened early and got so many people that they're telling everyone to go home."

Caruso cursed. "I am going to kill you," she said to Beshar.

Sure enough, as I rounded the corner and strolled onto Harrison Avenue, the main drag, I saw a wave of muttering, gesturing, clearly irritated people trudging along in the opposite direction. There were young guys in white T-shirts with black pants and tattoos, middle-age guys in dark suits and open-collar shirts with gold chains and chest hair, women in leather pants with big 'dos and enough eyeliner to repaint a car.

"I don't believe this," grumbled one young woman, who wore a snug black T-shirt. On the front was a drawing of a black widow and the words: "We could mate ... but then I'd have to KILL YOU."

Her name, she said, was Kristi Maffia. To prove it, she produced a professional black and white studio photograph of herself with her name at the bottom.

"I'm an aspiring actress," she said. "I just got a manager. I BELONG on 'The Sopranos.' Can't you just see it: 'Maffia joins Mafia.' " She sighed. "They wouldn't even let me in."

They wouldn't let anybody in. I walked down Harrison Avenue, past a diner and a bar and a laundromat, and into the center of a gritty little blue-collar town with charm and character and, at this moment, thousands and thousands of people who had so thoroughly overrun the streets and sidewalks that the whole thing looked like it had been orchestrated by Cecil B. de Mille.

It was, fittingly, a mob scene.

The focal point of this human maelstrom was Harrison High School, a nondescript structure that was guarded by what appeared to be the riot squad.

I inched, squeezed and excused my way through the throng and made it to the main entrance, where several harried young men, obviously HBO employees, were holding cardboard boxes into which the fevered applicants were told to deposit their photographs. The network, the young men said, would be in touch.

Behind them, on the steps leading up to a row of glass doors, was a phalanx of Harrison's finest. One of them, Lt. Dan Nankinella, public information officer for the Harrison Police Dept., held a bullhorn.

"We ask for your cooperation," he boomed, firmly but politely, as the masses continued to swell. "Please disperse."

"Did you drop off your photo?" I asked him.

He shook his head but didn't make eye contact. "I want no part of this," he said.

"Don't you want to be in show business?" I inquired.

"I already am," he deadpanned.

When I told Lt. Nankinella that I was a member of the press, produced evidence of it and asked him if I could speak with someone from HBO, he quickly let me inside, where I met a pleasant young man who identified himself only as "Diego."

"We saw several thousand people before we were forced to shut down," Diego said. (The next day, law-enforcement officials estimated that almost 20,000 people had shown up.) "We opened at 8:45 because there were so many people waiting outside," Diego added. "We had to close at 10:30 at the request of the police."

Back outside, after dropping my photo into a box and saying goodbye to Lt. Nankinella, who told me that he was expecting the SWAT team at any moment, I was standing around, taking notes, when a woman came up to me and moaned: "This is cruel to do to a senior citizen!"

"Why?" I asked.

"I came all the way from the Bronx and now I can't get in," she said. I asked her name. "Anne Sullivan," she replied. "But I'm really Italian." She said she is a retired medical transcriber who had worked two jobs and had taken care of her kids and her husband for 40 years. "Now it's my turn," she said, adding that she wants to be an actress. "I'm 66 but I don't look it. Put down that I'm 56."

"OK," I said.

"I want to get on the show," she insisted. "I want to be an Italian mother who makes meatballs."

By now it was noon, and the word "meatballs" reminded me that it was time for lunch. I slowly made my way back through the crowd, which hadn't dispersed. Then I ducked under a barrier of yellow police tape and walked across the street to Cifelli's, an Italian bar and restaurant.

The place was packed. It, too, could have been a character on "The Sopranos," a small neighborhood joint with the easy personality of a favorite uncle: friendly, funny and unpretentious, but with a countenance creased by years of hard work and eyes damp with nostalgia.

"It's a little busy today," said Daniel Cifelli, a dark-haired man of 33 who, with his sister, Maria, and his brother, Chris, owns the popular establishment, which has been in the family for four generations.

"Did you drop off your photo?" I asked.

Cifelli laughed as he scurried into the cramped kitchen, which was filled with the intense aroma of garlic and tomato sauce. "I didn't have time," he said.

Then he asked Carmella Hahn, a waitress who has worked at Cifelli's seven days a week for the past 25 years, to get me a table as soon as one became available. "It may be a little while. Is that OK?" she asked with a maternal smile.

I told her it was and asked if she wanted to be on "The Sopranos."

"Only if they offer me a lot of money," Hahn replied as she rushed away with an order of pasta.

As I stood just off the end of the bar, about 10 feet from the kitchen, I detected a small commotion directly to my right. I looked over and saw several people surrounding a middle-age woman with pale blond hair and a familiar face. It was Carmella Soprano!

I blinked and looked again. The woman looked back and smiled like she knew exactly what I was going to ask.

"Are you ... "

"Helen Janz," she said, extending her hand. She could have been separated at birth from Edie Falco, the Emmy-winning actress who plays Tony Soprano's long-suffering wife, except it's doubtful that Falco would wear a silver necklace with the word "Helen" scripted in silver.

"Yes, I dropped off my photo," Janz said, anticipating the next question. "But I couldn't get in." She laughed. "They wouldn't even let Carmella in!"

As we chatted, at least half a dozen people came up to Janz and said: "Do you know who you look like?"

Janz knew. "I get it all the time," she said. "I've had people take pictures with me so they could make believe they met Carmella. Guys have jumped out of their cars and asked for an autograph." She paused. "Of course, I can't do that."

"Do you think you'll get on the show?" I asked.

"Maybe," said Janz, a nail technician from Bayville, N.J. "I could be her understudy. It's like being the vice president: I'd take a fall for her."

One of Janz's admirers, Carlo Muraco, who wore a dark suit and an open-collar shirt, not only wants to be on "The Sopranos," he wants to write for the show. "I'm working on a script," said Muraco, a Brooklyn guy who said he produced and acted in "One Deadly Road," a direct-to-video movie that was on Pay-Per-View earlier this year. "It stars Burt Young and Frankie Adonis," said Muraco. "I'm in the boxing scene."

At that moment, another, very different Frankie made my acquaintance. Frankie Hicks, a golden beauty with a Texas twang, was one of only two people I met who actually got in to the casting call.

"I came all the way from Kansas City," said Hicks, a former fashion model who moved to the Midwest after living in Japan for a few years. "I have some Italian friends in New York who said I had to do this. So I flew in. I got in this line that was like three miles long and I walked right up to the front and the guy at the door said, 'We've been waiting for you.' And he let me in!"

Hicks smiled. "They took my photo and I filled out a little sheet," she said. "I think they're going to call me."

Manny Antunes, a young guy with a shaved head, a white sleeveless undershirt and red pants, also got in. "I showed up at 7 a.m. and there already must have been a thousand people," he said. "I drove by at 4 a.m. and I saw people starting to camp out. My wife wouldn't let me do that because she said there would be a lot of single women there."

Finally, Carmella (the waitress) came over and told me my table was ready. I sat down and ordered a lunch worthy of Tony Soprano: a huge plate of veal parmigiana with ziti and a glass of red wine. It was delicious.

At 2 o'clock the place was still packed, Led Zeppelin blared from the sound system and three women, including Frankie, were dancing (enthusiastically but fully clothed) on the bar.

I got up, left Carmella a $20 tip, put on my shades and walked out into the midday sun. People still milled about but the throngs were gone. I made my way back to the car and started the long drive home, reliving a sensational day and dreaming of an offer I can't refuse.


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