The Sopranos

Water-cooler skeins

James Gandolfini was on the upswing. He had excellent supporting turns in “True Romance,” “Get Shorty” and “A Civil Action” and was being noticed by critics when he shot the pilot for “The Sopranos” in June 1997.

Funny what a little red sauce can do for a career.

Three seasons later, Gandolfini is a modern-day Marlon Brando: mob bosses that straddle the line between loving fathers and cold-blooded killers.

Maybe it’s that dichotomy which has turned “The Sopranos” into the most talked-about and intensely watched skein in today’s TV landscape.

On any given Monday morning, conversations quickly move from “How was your weekend” to “What do you think about Tony”?

“None of us expected the kind of response that we initially got and seemingly continue to get for this material,” says exec producer Brad Grey, who credits colleague Susie Fitzgerald for championing Gandolfini’s audition tape. “I don’t know what to attribute it to except David Chase’s talent and the talent of the team that we’ve put together.”

How about the fact that Tony, who might be the most powerful man in New Jersey (and that includes both the governor and Bruce Springsteen), can kill anybody in an instant but doesn’t know how to handle his rebellious kids?

“The fact is that people sympathize with him because he has family, home and relationship issues even while he’s committing murder,” says Grey. “It’s a testament to his performance.”

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