How Chevrolet Drove ‘The Sopranos’ and David Chase to Super Bowl LVI

Courtesy of General Motors/Chevrolet

Jamie-Lynn Sigler has been keeping a secret for weeks. On Sunday, it finally came out.

Sigler, who played Meadow Soprano for more than eight years on the iconic HBO series “The Sopranos,” stepped into the role again Sunday for a Chevrolet commercial that aired during NBC’s telecast of Super Bowl LVI. The ad updated, shot for shot, the show’s opening montage, which used to feature James Gandolfini’s  Tony Soprano driving a Chevy truck. On Sunday night, it was Meadow Soprano doing the driving — in an electric Chevrolet Silverado, billed as a vehicle for “a new generation.”

Sigler has been sworn to silence ever since getting a call in mid-December about the plan, which also included Robert Iler, the actor who played her brother, A.J. Soprano. In the spot, the two meet at a restaurant —  a callback to the much-discussed ending of the original series — after Meadow starts charging her vehicle. The commercial was shot over four days in mid-January in New York and New Jersey, with “Sopranos” creator and showrunner David Chase at the helm and several original crew members handling work behind the scenes. Sigler says she hasn’t even told friends about it.

“No one knows,” Sigler says in an interview. “You hear that ‘Sopranos’ music, I feel like it’s going to prompt everyone’s head to turn immediately to the screen and try to figure out what’s going on. I think that’s what everybody hopes.”

And yet, bringing “The Sopranos” — or at least part of it — back to the screen is about as hard as killing Christopher Moltisanti or Sal Bonpensiero.

Click here to subscribe to Variety‘s free Strictly Business newsletter covering media earnings, financial and investment news and more.

General Motors had big plans for the 2022 Super Bowl and its executives have been discussing possibilities for months. The giant American automaker has vowed to create a fleet of electric vehicles as part of a mandate to fight climate change. Getting Americans to adopt electric Chevys and Cadillacs, however, will require clever marketing that makes potential buyers see the new cars and trucks as something alluring, useful and easy to buy and understand. Last year, GM used the Super Bowl to unveil a commercial with Will Ferrell that showed the comedian getting angry at how many electric vehicles were sold in Norway compared to the U.S. The spot generated chatter.

Now all GM had to do was keep the conversation going.

On one front, GM enlisted Mike Myers to bring back the cast of the popular “Austin Powers” series in a commercial that shows Dr. Evil and his family taking over GM and saving the environment. Getting all the actors on board in a specific time frame wasn’t easy, says Julian Jacobs, managing director of the entertainment and culture marketing division of MediaLink, the division of United Talent Agency that helps General Motors negotiate agreements with celebrities and influencers.

“The thing fell apart five different times,” he notes, but eventually coalesced, with Myers taking a significant role in writing the scene.  GM happily leaked the spot ahead of the Big Game. But the “Sopranos” Chevrolet ad was kept under wraps; all the better to surprise Super Bowl viewers who have come to expect online “teasers” for most commercials before the event.

The company may need that element. Other automakers are also headed to the Super Bowl, including Toyota and Nissan, which has enlisted Eugene Levy for its Big Game spot, along with Marvel actors Brie Larson, Danai Gurira and Dave Bautista. Polestar, an electric-vehicle start up, also plans to have a Super Bowl presence.

“The Super Bowl really is a place where competitive battles play out,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has long studied Super Bowl advertising strategies. “There is a mad rush to carve out a position.”

The idea to revive “The Sopranos” came up about half a year ago, when executives at Commonwealth/McCann, the Interpublic Group agency that works for GM, started to think of Super Bowl concepts. The show has enjoyed a recent upswell among younger viewers, who may have used the COVID-19 pandemic to catch up on a property they had only heard tales about from others. Some of that interest may have been boosted by the release of a “Sopranos” prequel, last year’s “The Many Saints of Newark.” Still, even Chase has been surprised. “I can’t think of another show that had a resurgence like this, maybe ‘The Honeymooners’”’ he says via email. “And they certainly deserved it.”

Others have tried to harness the popularity of a pop-culture favorite with a new commercial. Comcast in 2019 secured the approval of director Steven Spielberg for an ad that extended the story of “E.T.,” the popular 1982 blockbuster under the aegis of the company’s Universal Pictures. The spot, which aired during NBC’s broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, enlisted actor Henry Thomas to reprise his role as Elliott, the young child E.T. befriended. The commercial — more than four minutes long in some versions — showed the alien creature returning to Earth and interacting with his now grown-up pal. And hawking Comcast’s Xfinity service as well.

Ad executives saw a direct connection between “The Sopranos” and Chevrolet they thought would appeal to consumers.  “We were talking about Chevy and pop culture.  After all, Chevrolet vehicles have been in hundreds of tv shows and movies.  As we started brainstorming the other American icons that have chosen Chevrolet, we realized that Tony Soprano drove a 1999 Chevy Suburban in the opening title sequence of ‘The Sopranos,’” says Gary Pascoe, the agency’s chief creative officer. “That was really interesting to us — this idea that Chevy has always been a big part of America’s cultural past and with the introduction of an all new, all-electric Silverado pickup truck, the brand will also be a big part of America’s future.”

The to-do list was daunting, however, according to executives involved in the process. Would fans both old and new think the presentation was authentic? Would creator Chase sign off? Even use of the series’ theme song, “Woke Up This Morning,” by the British group Alabama 3, wasn’t guaranteed.

GM asked UTA to help get David Chase involved. Executives knew they had to approach the task carefully.

“David is incredibly — as he should be — precious and delicate and sensitive about how ‘The Sopranos’ and how that IP is exploited,” Jacobs explained. The team enlisted Peter Benedek, the UTA co-founder who has long represented Chase, to walk him through the parameters of the project and to ask him to take part.

One thing Chase wanted was the participation of Phil Abraham, the series’ director of photography, who shot the original opening montage. Doing so was critical to the authenticity of the new video, says Chase, “and it was the best move I ever made.” UTA also had to clear the song, which has multiple rightsholders, Jacobs says, and broach the “Sopranos” Super Bowl concept with HBO. As instrumental as Chase is to the series, Jacobs adds, “That’s their baby, too.”

Chase and ad executives got to work. “We had multiple creative meetings where we talked about different ending options, so many different ideas. It was David’s idea to have Meadow and AJ meet at the restaurant — he thought it added another element of intrigue, i.e. Who else is there? Why that restaurant? There’s a marina behind it, so what does that mean? He was really focused on the ending and getting it right,” says Pascoe. “So, on set, we talked about the ending right up to the moment we shot it. Literally. It was changing by the minute, which was a little stressful, but, when he shot it, we all knew we had it.”

The Chevrolet commercial has a lot to offer the “Sopranos” faithful, who will no doubt compare it with the original. The car dashboard in the series’ opener, for example, shows a clock displaying 10:22 a.m. In the commercial, viewers see an in-vehicle infotainment screen with the same time. In the original, Tony Soprano stops to grab a ticket at a toll booth. In the ad, Meadow Soprano drives right through thanks to EZ-Pass. Tony smokes a cigar while driving his Suburban. Meadow has a lollipop.

There are other differences. A cemetery in the original has been replaced with a shot of a playground. When Meadow passes Satriele’s Pork Store, a new sign says the place now features meats with “no antibiotics.” And there’s even a nod to issues Meadow has had with parallel parking. The Silverado makes the task much easier.

“There are no Hollywood backlots, no CGI locations in this spot — that’s Jersey in 2022 in January. We even shot on film, rather than digital, to match the original 1999 look and feel,” says Pascoe. “Authenticity can’t be faked, so we didn’t try.”

Chevrolet’s “Sopranos” trip isn’t over. UTA has enlisted a bevy of influencers — some of whom have notable ties to the show — to talk about the commercial on social media. Fans may see posts from Drea de Matteo, Steve Schirripa, Leslie Odom Jr., Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperoli, Justine Ezarik, Jenna Ezarkik, Nick Cho, and Judner Aur reacting to the Super Bowl scenes.

As popular as the HBO series was when it was on TV, Chase says he is delighted it still seems to have connections in 2022. Getting the details right may be arduous, but all the effort seems worth it. “It’s one of those things where you think it’s just so crazy, it might work,” Chase says.