Monday, March 29, 2004

"Sopranos" star Dominic Chianese tries to bring out the humanity in his mobster role.

‘Sopranos’ actor
visits isles’ Don

Dominic Chianese reflects on
the success of the HBO series

It was a chance meeting between two "godfathers" -- Dominic Chianese, who plays the would-be don Corrado "Junior" Soprano and uncle to mob boss Tony on HBO's "The Sopranos," and Hawaii's "don" of music, Don Ho.

Chianese, in Honolulu as the featured guest Saturday at an HBO bash at Honolulu Harbor honoring the award-winning series, was brought up onstage while attending Ho's show last week.

"I didn't know what to expect, but Don was clever and kind," said Chianese (pronounced key-ah-nay-zay).

Ho didn't ask Chianese to sing, but said, "I want you to think of what you're going to sing."

"It was something that Uncle Junior might do," Chianese said.

And if Ho had been less diplomatic?

"Junior might have whacked him," said Chianese, laughing.

After a half-century of acting, with credits on Broadway, television and feature films, Chianese finally achieved prominence for his "Sopranos" role, the success of which he credits to good writing.

"To be in this great show is a gift from providence," said Chianese, 73. "At my first audition when I read for my role, I thought, 'This is interesting, a black comedy.'"

The scene had him telling his sister-in-law matter-of-factly: "We may have to kill your son. Is that all right?"

"I first thought this would never happen, then I realized it made perfect sense," Chianese said. "My character is a mobster, she's married to my brother who is a mobster, and we're all gangsters who live in Jersey."

It wasn't too far off from what Chianese saw growing up in the Bronx where "there really were gangsters."

"My earliest memory of seeing gangsters was going to school around the corner at PS 74 and seeing all these young men being chased by police in unmarked cars," he said. "The guys had been shooting dice."

Chianese molded his portrayal a bit by those memories but would never alter "Sopranos" producer-writer David Chase's vision.

"Could we do that? Zilch, no way, and I'm glad for that," he says. "He's a Shakespeare for TV. ... You wouldn't want to mess with it.

"The writer is the painter; we're his paint. An actor's place really is to bring out the writers' art."

There are few similarities between Chianese and Uncle Junior.

"The New York accent, a certain sensibility as an Italian American to deliver lines, but that's it," he says. "And I don't like the way he dresses."

Chase did help shape Chianese's physical appearance, giving the actor oversize glasses to magnify his eyes. "I guess it makes me look more intimidating," he said.

He may not be a soprano but HBO's "Sopranos" star Dominic Chianese did get a chance to show his musical side when he showed up at Don Ho's show.

THE BRONX native began acting onstage in 1952, mostly in character parts. Chianese didn't appear in films until the '70s, but now has several blockbusters to his credit, including "The Godfather Part II" (1974) and "All the President's Men" (1976). As he aged into character parts, Chianese began working with more frequency, either playing figures of authority -- a judge on NBC's "Law & Order" -- or gangsters, as in the 1996 HBO biopic "Gotti."

"Junior" is "my late-in-life breakthrough," he says.

Treading the fine line between drama and comedy, Chianese etches a stunning portrait of a simple man with large ambitions, receiving Emmy nominations in 2000 and 2001 for his efforts.

"Uncle Junior is a human guy, too," Chianese insists. "He's a sick man facing old age. For some reason he never married but was with the same girl for 16 years.

"But when she tells about their sex life, he throws a pie in her face and breaks up with her 'cuz he's really teed off. He went downhill after that, lost his companion, lost what he needed. I think the audience feels that loss.

"I don't know what a normal mob boss is because I've never met a mob boss, but I'm sure criminals are human beings."

It's that humanness that's made "The Sopranos" so riveting.

"It's magic because you're always having these human situations," Chianese said. "You got Tony dealing with his wife and children, and it's the same thing whether you work for a corporation or are a fireman or a truck driver.

"Whacking a guy is just business, and family matters are a whole other thing. Look at Tony. He just beat a guy to death, but yet he has feelings, you know, for a horse.

"There's a theme underneath it all about redemption. It's about a guy who's born into something. How does he get out of it? Does he get his comeuppance, which he probably deserves?"

CHIANESE'S parents were first-generation Italian Americans. His grandparents came from southern Italy. Dad and granddad were stone masons. The actor gets so emotional talking about his father's passing some 20 years ago that he can't continue.

"My father wanted me to be a schoolteacher," he says. "He didn't want me to get hurt. I was a dreamer."

Chianese taught fifth grade for a brief time but said, "The system didn't agree with my sensitivities as an actor."

"My father was 15 when he had to go to work to help support the family. I'm sure he gave up his dreams to be an architect.

"Just before Pop died he grabbed my hand and ..." said Chianese, whose eyes begin to mist over. "Well, uh, he had seen my 'Godfather II,' film and he, uh, was very proud of me. He accepted me, my choices and -- gosh, this is very emotional -- that was very important."

At an age when many of his contemporaries might consider retiring, Chianese says he's just getting started. Filming for "The Sopranos'" sixth season won't begin until next spring, so Chianese will finish writing his autobiography, "Never Too Late," and possibly tour with his band Dominic and the Cement Sidewalkers, which performs weekly in New York City. He's recorded two CDs of country and Italian songs.

"I don't know what (Chase) is going to do to Junior, and I don't want to know," Chianese says. ""It would break my heart to get whacked. But we were told from the beginning that someone gets whacked every season. You have to accept the whacking. This is a Mafia show."

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