From left to right: Steven Van Zandt as Silvio Dante, James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Tony Sirico as Paulie Walnuts star in HBO’s hit television series, “The Sopranos” (Year 3). (Photo by HBO) (HBO/Getty Images)
Created by TV veteran David Chase, The Sopranos would change television for all time. The subject wasn’t new – it focused on a mob family in New Jersey, but the character at the head of the family was new.
Tony Soprano was big, tough, profane and suffered from anxiety attacks. The other tiny wrinkle was the fact his mother was plotting to kill him. So Tony Soprano was a very different kind of crime boss – he went to therapy sessions every week.
The casting in The Sopranos was superb. James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano. He was a powerful presence – decisive, scary, and didn’t suffer fools. He was only afraid of his wife.
When David Chase visualized The Sopranos, he thought of each episode as a tiny movie. Not an ongoing soap opera. And there was one episode in particular that changed the television landscape. It was episode 5 in the first season titled “College,” where Tony Soprano takes his daughter to Maine to visit three colleges she is thinking of attending. But when they get to Maine, something happens.
While at a gas station, Tony spots a guy who entered the witness relocation program after turning state’s evidence against Tony’s mob family. David Chase wanted Tony to kill him – and strangle him with his bare hands – in an extreme close-up.
The CEO of HBO begged David Chase not to film the scene. He felt the graphic murder would turn viewers off and set them against Tony Soprano. He told Chase he had created one of the most compelling lead characters in television history – but he was risking flushing it all down the toilet with this one scene.
Chase disagreed, saying that if Tony didn’t kill the snitch in this episode, he would look weak and the show would be over. Chase saw the scene as crucial to the character’s development. It was the first time Tony Soprano had killed anyone in the series. And it was the first – and only – time HBO would ask David Chase to change something in The Sopranos.
David Chase won the argument. Tony Soprano murdered the snitch – and “College” has been cited as one of the best episodes in television history, the best episode of the entire Sopranos series and Chase cites it as his favourite.
The episode also cemented a very important aspect of Tony Soprano. It made him an anti-hero. He was a lead character capable of horrific acts. It was the one thing HBO feared – that audiences couldn’t accept an anti-hero. But they were wrong. Despite Tony Soprano’s methods, and actions and brutality, The Sopranos would go on to heralded as one of the greatest television series of all time, and Tony Soprano as one of television’s greatest characters. It kicked opened the doors to the 21st century era of the anti-hero.