As the sad news of his death breaks, we remember Paul Nolan's encounter with the man who played Phil Leotardo...
Still scratching your head over The Sopranos’ enigmatic final curtain? To help you make sense of it – and to look back over its eight years – we talk to Frank Vincent, aka wiseguy Phil Leotardo...
The final episode of The Sopranos has brought to an end one of the all time great television shows. From the beginning, the series’s winning mixture of mob feuds, familial drama and black comedy swiftly elevated it to the category marked “unmissable viewing”, a position it scarcely left during its eight-year run. Not that the show ended without controversy, mind, with some fans in the US complaining that the finale was inconclusive and somewhat anti-climactic.
A key character in the last season was Phil Leotardo, who originally made his entry at the beginning of series five. One of the wiseguys sent to prison during the Mafia crackdown of the 1980s, Leotardo served a 20 year sentence and quickly rejoined the Brooklyn based Lupertazzi crime family following his release. After several previous run-ins with Tony Soprano, things came to a head following the imprisonment of Johnny Sack, when Phil became boss of the Lupertazzi family and launched a war against Tony’s crew.
However, the strategy backfired and ended with Phil being shot dead in the final episode by an associate of Tony’s. Phil was played by Frank Vincent, the Italian-American actor noted for his work with top class directors like Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet, and most famously, Martin Scorsese. In recent times, Vincent has become more familiar to Irish audiences courtesy of his appearances in a series of advertisements for Permanent TSB.
I have been advised to ring Frank on his mobile, which, in a decidedly ironic twist, his Irish agent had abbreviated to his “mob” number in an email confirming the interview. The actor is on holiday in Florida, and he certainly sounds relaxed as he chats amiably to hotpress about his work on The Sopranos.
So how did he become involved in the show?
“David Chase auditioned everyone for the pilot,” remembers Frank, in that familiar New Jersey accent. “I auditioned for the same role with Dominic Chianese and Tony Sirico. We didn’t know what The Sopranos was beforehand, we thought it was a show about singers! Then Dominic got hired to play Junior, and David created the role of Paulie Walnuts, which Tony played. Subsequently, David told me that he didn’t hire me at the time because I had too much visibility as a result of Goodfellas, and he was looking more for unknown actors so that he could create really intense characters.
“Then he brought me back a few seasons later, and we sat and we talked. He said, ‘I’m gonna find something for you, I want you on the show.’ And then they created the character of Phil.”
Had Frank been a fan of the show prior to Phil’s arrival?
“Absolutely,” he replies. “Everyone on the show was friends to begin with, we’re all New York actors. I must have done five movies with Dominic and eight with Tony Sirico. I’d also been in a movie with James Gandolfini called Night Falls On Manhattan. We didn’t act together, but we met over lunch during the shooting of the film. So we all knew each other from working together, and to tell you the truth, in the beginning I was a little bit bummed out not to be on the show when all my friends were. People would say, ‘When are you going on the show?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, it’s up to David if I get to go on.’
“But then obviously I joined the cast. There was a great bond between the actors, and we were doing charity work together, playing softball games and different things to raise money, so the family just kept getting closer and closer because we were seeing each other socially. And everybody was thrilled to be working on a project this great.”
Another New York actor who made a stellar contribution to The Sopranos was Steve Buscemi, renowned for his roles in cult movies like Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Buscemi joined the cast in the fifth season as Tony’s ill-fated cousin Tony Blundetto, and also directed on several occasions, including ‘Pine Barrens’ (one of the show’s great episodes, in which Paulie and Christopher get lost in the titular woods whilst pursuing a Russian gangster), and two episodes which featured Frank, ‘In Camelot’ and ‘Mr And Mrs John Sacrimoni Request’.
“‘In Camelot’ was the episode where I crashed a car into a truck,” reflects Frank. “Steve is a great talent; ‘Pine Barrens’ is hysterical. It was great to see my friend Tony (Sirico) getting away from his character, because Paulie is more or less clichéd. Not Christopher so much, because Michael Imperioli is a pretty in-depth kind of an actor. But Tony was great in that, it was funny, funny stuff.”
How did Frank find the process of making the show? Would the cast work long hours?
“Oh yeah,” he responds. “We would have a read through on the Tuesday or Wednesday prior to each episode, and you’d leave with your pages. When you came to work, you had to do it exactly the way it was written, there was no opportunity for improv. It’s TV and there’s money involved, so we had to get it done as fast as we could. But the point is, the writing was so great you didn’t have to do anything other than deliver the material.
“Each season was completed over quite a long period of time. We did nine episodes for the last series, and we started work on that in April of ’06 and finished it in April of ’07. An individual episode would take 15 to 18 days, but then we had to go back and loop everything for the syndicated version, which had all the bad words removed. Then we had to go in and loop some stuff for the regular show, and sometimes we’d have to re-shoot something or add a scene, so it was a lot of work.”
Given that The Sopranos’ blend of drama and humour gave the series such a distinctive tone, did Frank find it easy to slip into the rhythm of the show?
“I did because it was basically a New York style,” he says. “David used authentic people. He brought guests in from far away, but when you look at the nuts and bolts of the show, Jimmy’s a Jersey guy, Tony Sirico is a Brooklyn guy and Dominic and Michael are from New York. Stevie Van Zandt made a terrific transition. He was a musician who never acted before, and he really worked hard to get that character together. But he’s from Jersey too.”
Would David Chase be onset for the shooting of each episode?
“Actually, David stayed in the headquarters in Queens, which was Silvercup Studios,” explains Frank. “That was the homebase. We shot all the stage stuff there, and David would be in the building, but he never came to the set. In the three seasons I was on the show, he only came to the set two or three times, although he did direct the last episode. But he controlled everything. One of the writers was always onset, and if you had an idea and you wanted to change something, you would tell the writer and he’d have to call David and discuss it.
“One time they had the name of a person in the storyline that I knew, and I said to the writer, ‘You can’t use this name. I know this person and it just doesn’t make sense’. So he called David and David changed the line. In terms of the directors, there was a core of three or four people who worked on a lot of episodes. Again, they would have their meetings with David beforehand. And we only had two photographers, who alternated shows. So that kept it pretty consistent, in terms of the way the show looked and how it came across.
“If the director had a question about anything, he’d consult the writer. The writers, many of whom were also executive producers, had the upper hand, actually. Television is a producer’s medium more than a director’s medium.”
One of the most impressive aspects of The Sopranos was how the show weaved together so many different elements. The series explored various aspects of life and even worked in references to current events, without any of it seeming forced or contrived.
“David’s timing was incredible,” acknowledges Frank. “In fact, in one of the episodes in the final season, there’s a reference to a real life event that hadn’t even happened when the episode was filmed! I think sometimes he added stuff after the fact, he’d loop a line into a scene that would bring it up to date.
“For example, when Christopher died, Tony kept talking about how he didn’t have his seatbelt on. What happened in the States was that the Governor of New Jersey crashed his car, which was being driven by a state trooper. They had a big SUV, it got sideswiped, and the governor of New Jersey was almost killed. The reason why he was almost killed was that he didn’t have his seatbelt on. That turned up in the show when Tony talked about Christopher’s death. He must have mentioned that he didn’t have his seatbelt on four or five times.
“But when you look at how it was shot, with Tony’s back to the camera, that could have been added in. Like you say, the show would reference what was going on in the world. That’s genius.”
Aside from its massive critical acclaim, in commercial terms, The Sopranos was also – if you’ll pardon the pun – a big hit. To what does Frank attribute the series’ huge success?
“Well, the genre has always been successful in this country,” he says. “From the beginning of movies to now, it’s worked. At the very start, you had the Bugsy Siegels and the Al Capones, and the American gangster movies with actors like James Cagney. So the genre has a big appeal. You’re talking about gangsters and a different way of life. These guys had money, women, expensive clothes – they had all the things that Americans want, and they didn’t have to go to work. I mean, they worked, but in a different way. So I guess a guy who’s doing a nine-to-five job looks at that and says, ‘Jeez, that’s really paradise’.”
“And to this day, I find women approach me in a certain way. I was out at dinner with my wife last night, and a woman came right up to the table. It was all, ‘Can I have a picture with you?’ and so on. They think it’s pretty sexy to be a gangster, you know? It’s interesting how that works. People are attracted to that.”
An important factor in The Sopranos storylines was that Tony always had an antagonist. This role has been filled in the past by characters like Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto (unforgettably played by Joe Pantoliano), but in season six Tony’s chief nemesis was Phil Leotardo. How did Frank feel about his character’s increased prominence in the final season?
“It was fun,” he remarks. “They’d phased Johnny out with the wedding and everything, so I guess they just had to bring in someone new to keep the interest going. There’s no way of knowing how David thinks, but I know that he has it all planned out. People were hooking onto Phil, and as it developed he became more prominent. Obviously he had to, to bring it to a head.”
In typical Sopranos style, there was a dark comedic twist to Phil’s death. After being executed at a Raceway gas station, Phil’s SUV (with his granddaughters still inside) rolled forward and crushed his skull, prompting one startled witness to yell “Oh shit!” and another to spontaneously vomit.
“It was interesting, the way he was killed,” says Frank. “It was a lot of work, because they had to make 15 dummy heads for the shot. I had to sit in a chair for a day to get that all done. I also had to lay down under the car once. The car was marked and chained, and it had to come up to my head. In terms of a farewell, it was a very dramatic death for Phil, and I love the way David did it, with the children in the car and the wife screaming. I couldn’t complain a bit, it was wonderful.
“And there was humour in it. He was assassinated, but it was purely an accident that the car rolled over his head. There was a lot of comedy in the show. If you watch it enough times, you’ll see the humour that David has in it.”
Does Frank think that Christopher’s horror flick Cleaver (“Saw meets Godfather 2”) will be made into a movie?
“I don’t know, I know that the t-shirts are worth a lot of money now,” he says. “I think he gave us all one. That whole storyline was also an interesting idea, they worked on that concept for a couple of seasons. It just goes to show you how far ahead David was. If you look at the stuff that’s in syndication, you can see story strands from the very beginning of the show being resolved at the end, seven or eight years later. A couple of times David took about a year-and-a-half between seasons to really think things through.”
And will we see a Sopranos movie somewhere down the line?
“Well, I think Jimmy’s resolved not to do that. But I don’t know, maybe five years from now HBO will say, ‘Here’s $50 million to make a movie’. If they made a film, it would be an international hit of the greatest magnitude, I’m sure. David has said many times in his interviews that he’s always had the ambition to make films, but I don’t know if there’s a movie in the offing or not.”
Critics of The Sopranos’ hotly debated finale (which cut to black as Tony, sitting in a diner with his family, looked up to see Meadow come through the door) seemed to have overlooked the fact that the series never had particularly tidy endings. Rather, each episode came to a slightly enigmatic conclusion that felt very true to life. As such, the last scene of ‘Made In America’ fitted the style of the show very well.
“It absolutely did,” agrees Frank. “In this country, everyone had the same comment, ‘My television broke’, because of the blackout. But if you remember, in the first episode, Tony said to Bobby Bacala in the boat, ‘When it happens, everything goes black’. The show ended that way, so the assumption was that one of the people in the diner killed Tony. Or maybe he lived; from what I understand, David left it to your individual imagination as to how it would end. And most people complained about the ending, but after they saw it again, they said it was brilliant.
“I was aware of how it was going to end in the text, but I wasn’t aware of how it was going to end in the editing; I didn’t know he had that up his sleeve. We knew the family was going to be sitting in the diner, that AJ was healthy and Tony was proud of him, and that Meadow was trying to park the car. And we knew there was tension, because there were people walking in and out and Meadow got a bit panicky in the car – all that was written. But the editing, nobody knew about that. I loved the ending, I thought it was great.”
I conclude by asking Frank about his famous scene in Goodfellas, in which his character, Billy Batts, makes the fatal error of advising Tommy DeVito (played by Joe Pesci) to “go home and get your fuckin’ shinebox.” What are his memories of shooting the scene?
“At that time in my life, I had just had back surgery,” he recalls. “It was difficult to do all the stuff on the floor, so we had my stuntman, Peter Bucossi, stand in for me, and he subsequently became stunt co-ordinator on The Sopranos. Billy Batts has become so popular that on my website I have “Go home and get your shinebox” t-shirts and mugs. My children run the site and we sell more t-shirts than I could ever have imagined. Batts became an icon because we all seem to work so well together in that scene.
“You see, Joe and I used to play music and do comedy together prior to working in film. Someone came to see us perform and offered us a role in a little movie, then Martin Scorsese put us Raging Bull, then from that obviously came Goodfellas. So Joe and I have a very strong and intimate relationship, and that intimacy came out in that film, when he came over to me going, ‘Don’t go bustin’ my balls.’ We were very loose in that scene, and it just connected and worked. And by the way, when I said, ‘Get those Irish hoodlums a drink,’ that was an ad-lib!”