How HBO's 'The Night Of' Lives On After James Gandolfini's Death

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James Gandolfini

John Turturro would go on to take the role originally set for the late actor in the eight-part limited crime and legal drama, due to debut July 10.

More than three years after the tragic death of James Gandolfini, the procedural show said to be his passion project is finally due to hit screens.

HBO's The Night Of — an eight-part miniseries co-created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, with Zaillian directing seven episodes — is set to debut July 10 (and later in the year on Sky Atlantic in the U.K.). Based on the BBC drama Criminal Justice, the story follows Naz, a young Pakistani-American student (Riz Ahmed) accused of a brutal murder, with John Turturro as John Stone, his ambulance-chasing eczema-suffering New York attorney.

While Gandolfini is still credited as an executive producer of the show, the late actor was initially set to take the role played by Turturro, having shot the pilot episode in late 2012. As it turned out, it would be the last thing he ever filmed, according to exec producer Jane Tranter, the former BBC exec who initially brought the series to HBO.

"Jim had a very clear idea of how he would play Stone," says Tranter, who produces for her new Bad Wolf banner (The Night Of is actually the first title to bear the company's logo). "It was very physical. A really, very sort of physical relationship with the character and how he wanted to play it. He talked about it very much in terms of the physique."

Gandolfini shot only for one day, appearing in just one scene with Ahmed.

"I think one of the things that was a blessing in the complete lack of blessings in Jim's death was the fact that he had only shot the pilot, which was very different from the first episode," adds Tranter. "And Richard and Steve had only really just started to block out episodes two and three when Jim passed."

But both she and Zaillian are keen to underline the passion brought to the role by Turturro, a performance Tranter says is "mesmerically brilliant" and "one of the most towering" she's seen on TV for a long time. "[Gandolfini] very much wanted to do it and I wanted him to do it," says Zaillian. "But as much as I would have loved to have done it with Jim, this has really become John’s part. They're both great actors."

After an acclaimed writing career spanning almost four decades, including the likes of Schindler's List (for which he won an Oscar), Gangs of New York, American Gangster and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Night Of is Zaillian's first TV venture. But he admits he and Price only ever intended to work on the pilot. "I just thought, if it's an hour, it's kind of like a little movie. But then it became: Ah, we'll do one more, one more … and then you reach a point where it's like, well, we've done this much, we have to finish it. You become possessive about it."

Although he admits to having caught the TV bug, Zaillian says he's not sure when a new small-screen project might land. "It's a big commitment. Certainly at this moment I don't have in mind any story that's going to hold my interest for as long as it takes to do this," he says.

Before another TV idea comes forward, among Zaillian's extensive list of future feature film projects is The Irishman, the long-gestating $100 million Martin Scorsese mobster biopic that became the hot title at this year's Cannes, where STX snatched international rights for a reported $50 million.

"I hope they can make it next year," he says of the film, based on the book by Frank Sheeran and set to reunite Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, adding that he expects it to be as good as Scorsese's previous gangster titles. "If there was Goodfellas, and Casino, which was again considered a gangster film but a totally different story, then there's this which is with the same actors, so yeah, it's fantastic … so I hope they make it."

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