It’s well known that The Sopranos was heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese’s remarkable run of gangster movies that started with 1973’s Mean Streets and culminated in 2019’s The Irishman. But what you might not remember is that two of Scorsese’s crime pictures served as the launching pad for two future stars of David Chase’s pioneering HBO mob drama. Michael Imperioli aka Christopher Moltisanti had a breakout role in 1990’s Goodfellas, while Steve Schirripa aka Bobby Baccalieri made a fleeting cameo in 1995’s Casino.
In a nice bit of timing, both of those movies are marking milestone anniversaries this fall: Goodfellas turns 30 on Sept. 19, while Casino celebrates 25 years as an underrated entry in Scorsese’s canon on Nov. 22. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year, the actors and off-screen pals — who are currently re-watching The Sopranos for their Talking Sopranos podcast — reflected on their respective Scorsese origin stories. (Watch our video interview above.)
Imperioli was only 23 when he landed a small, but memorable part in Goodfellas as Spider, a wannabe wise guy who is shot on two separate occasions by Joe Pesci’s trigger-happy Tommy DeVito: one time in the foot, and the second (and fatal) time in the chest. “I’d been struggling as an actor for about six years by then,” he recalls. “[Goodfellas] to me was like getting called up from the minors into the World Series with the Yankees. Those were my heroes. As an Italian-American actor in New York, that’s where you wanted to be.”
In Imperioli’s case, his heroes lived up to the hype. During his short time on set, the young actor got to appear in the same frame as experienced screen performers like Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro, and take direction from Scorsese. “The thing I’m most grateful for is that they — particularly Marty because he was the boss — treated me like I belonged there,” he says now. “They treated me like an actor, and for that I’ll always be grateful.”
Imperioli also received a crash course in how freak accidents can, and do, happen on movie sets. In the scene where Spider is shot for the second time, the actor cut his hand on glass and had to be rushed to the ER for stitches. There was only one problem: He was still covered in fake blood and bullet holes that the hospital staff confused for the real thing. “The whole hospital staff was convinced I was about to die, and wouldn’t listen to me when I explained I was in a movie! Eventually they saw the wires and the squibbing and made me wait in the corner for four hours before they got to me and stitched me up. Then I went back and shot another take.”
In contrast, Schirripa’s time on the Casino set was mercifully accident free. At the time, the novice actor had been working in Las Vegas as the entertainment director of the famed Riviera Hotel, and hoped to land a role as a maître d in Scorsese’s Sin City epic, which reunited De Niro and Pesci. “I auditioned for [Scorsese] and De Niro,” Schirripa remembers. “You say hello to Robert De Niro, and he’s stuck for an answer!”
He didn’t get that part, but he was brought onboard as an extra for one 16-hour day of filming the scene where Pesci commits another violent act: stabbing a guy with a pen. “They said to get in the scene, so I yelled, ‘Joey, look out!’ Scorsese gave me some direction, but I was green and I didn’t really know. If you put the VCR in really slow and turn the volume way up high, you can maybe see and hear me.” Besides the memory of working with Scorsese, Schirripa walked away from Casino with an important building block for the rest of his career: his Screen Actors Guild card.
And in case there’s still any lingering doubt that David Chase was heavily influenced by Scorsese’s work, Imperioli points to a Goodfellas Easter egg that’s hidden in a Season 1 episode of The Sopranos, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.” In the sequence, Christopher pulls a Tommy DeVito by shooting a Spider-esque bakery clerk in the foot and says “It happens!” Eagle-eyed fans have long speculated that Chase wrote that into the script as a Goodfellas reference and Imperioli confirms those theories. “David thought it would be fun to make a direct reflection of Goodfellas there, without a doubt.” What a wiseguy.
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