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[This story contains spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark.]
When Michael Imperioli made the decision to reprise his iconic Sopranos character in The Many Saints of Newark, he had no idea his understanding of Christopher Moltisanti would be forever altered.
With the beloved HBO Mafia drama still being a major force in his life thanks to Talking Sopranos, the popular podcast Imperioli co-hosts with fellow series alum Steve Schirripa, the veteran actor knew there was a massive appetite for the show and characters. So, when creator-writer David Chase brought him the script for The Many Saints of Newark, Imperioli told The Hollywood Reporter, he was immediately interested in the surprising cameo as narrator.
“For me, it was something of a no-brainer,” Imperioli says. “It makes sense for the movie. I like the idea of using the voice from beyond the grave.” It is that eerie, familiar voice that opens the Warner Bros. picture — Christopher confirming he was condemned to hell for his life of wickedness before introducing the story of his father, Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, played in the film by Alessandro Nivola.
“It was fun revising the character, but extracted from the show — actually disembodied is a better word,” Imperioli says with a chuckle. “It was definitely different because so much time had gone by and there was an abstract nature to doing the voiceover, which is different than playing him. When you’re playing him, so much of it is him bouncing off the other characters, like Tony (James Gandolfini) and Adriana (Drea de Matteo).”
Imperioli commended Nivola’s performance for the “humanity” he brought to the Mafia legend — never seen, only discussed in the HBO series — and says he was intrigued to see Christopher’s father fleshed out. It led him to an even better understanding of the deeply flawed man he won an Emmy for portraying for six seasons.
“Dickie is a mobster and criminal, you can’t deny that — but he seems like a good guy,” Imperioli says with charm in defending his screen father. “There are some noble qualities to him. I imagined him before the movie as more like Christopher, more hot-headed, but he wasn’t. He was a more composed character, which made me think that a lot of Christopher’s defects and addictive-compulsive nature actually came from not having a father.”
Fans of the series knew Dickie was murdered, but it was never clear why or by whom, which The Many Saints of Newark divulges in a twist sure to get some Sopranos die-hards ruffled: Junior (Corey Stoll) made the call — and he did it out of spite and jealously.
For Imperioli, the why of the twist didn’t matter so much as the who, as the revelation gave him a new — and unexpected — understanding of Christopher, the actor confesses. “It shows how fucked up the Sopranos are,” he says, somewhat bewildered by the obviousness of the assessment. “It made me think that Christopher was doomed from the start, from birth. It is almost like it is imprinted in his genetics.”
Over the years, online message boards have been crammed with a plethora of series theories, including Tony’s fate and who killed Dickie. Imperioli is with those who never bought the story Tony told Christopher in “For All Debts Public and Private.” In the fourth season episode written by Chase, Christopher kills a recently retired, alleged crooked cop who Tony claims killed Dickie on the behest of Jilly Ruffalo. Jilly, as Tony tells it, was in prison with Dickie and murdered Dickie’s cellmate. Dickie, years later, gouged out Jilly’s eye for revenge. Then Jilly hired Barry to kill Dickie. Barry, begging for his life, tells Christopher he knew nothing about the situation.
“I always kind of doubted that,” Imperioli says of the much-debated moment. “It just seemed too random. Is Tony really tracking this that hard? It did smell like a tactic of Tony’s to draw Christopher closer to him, bond him. The cop didn’t track, either. If they told Tony as a kid it was this specific cop, there would have been people after that cop earlier.”
The first Sopranos episode that Imperioli penned was “From Where to Eternity” in the second season, which revolved around Christopher recovering in the hospital after being shot by Matthew Bevilaqua (Lillo Brancato) and Sean Gismonte (Chris Tardio). Clinically dead for a minute, Christoper tells Tony and Paulie (Tony Sirico) that he briefly visited hell — for Italians, an Irish bar — where he saw Dickie, adding “And the bouncer said I would be there, too, when the time comes.”
And as it turns out, that wasn’t a hallucination, as confirmed by The Many Saints of Newark.
“That episode came out of me wanting to explore how these characters related to their Catholic upbringing and Catholic beliefs,” Imperioli explains. “There was no foresight that [the film] was going to happen. I almost would have liked to hear some ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ in the background as Christopher was being recorded. That might have been really funny.”
In addition to his podcast, Imperioli and Schirripa have a new book due out next month, Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos. “It’s been very unexpected because most shows don’t have the kind of longevity and extension to subsequent generations,” Imperioli says of the show’s enduring popularity since the series wrapped in June 2007. “It’s really fun and very meaningful.”
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