clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Which ‘Many Saints of Newark’ Actor Did the Best Job Playing a ‘Sopranos’ Character?

Many of the prequel’s thespians understood the assignment, but alas, a few ended up closer to an ‘SNL’ sketch

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, mobster Tony laments to his new therapist that he “came in at the end”—of organized crime and its heyday, but also the American dream writ large. The Many Saints of Newark, the long-awaited prequel of sorts cowritten by Sopranos creator David Chase, takes us back to the middle. Starting in the late 1960s, Many Saints charts the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a man whose specter looms over the show, in large part through his son Christopher (Michael Imperioli). In Many Saints, the situation is reversed: it’s Christopher, killed by Tony near the end of the series, who narrates his father’s life from beyond the grave. Dickie’s time was a better one for the New Jersey mafia, not yet stamped out by aggressive enforcement of RICO and other federal statutes. But as we come to see, it wasn’t without its petty resentments or mortal dangers.

Many Saints sprawling ensemble cast is filled with figures new to the Sopranos universe. Some are known to us but were never previously depicted onscreen: Dickie, of course, but also to an extent Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Tony’s father who briefly appeared only in flashbacks. (It turns out he was not, as his wife Livia liked to say after his death, “a saint,” and neither were his colleagues.) Others are entirely new inventions from Chase and cowriter Lawrence Konner, brought to life by director Alan Taylor: Dickie’s stepmother turned goomar Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), whose passage from Italy is the film’s inciting incident; his employee turned rival Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), who provides a window into Newark’s Black underworld and simmering racial tensions; and Dickie’s father and uncle, both played by Ray Liotta in a stunning dual performance.

Still, Many Saints straddles the line between past and present, underscoring some of The Sopranos enduring themes: family, inherited trauma, and how younger generations are doomed to repeat the sins of their parents. In keeping with that message, many characters in the movie are simply younger versions of iconic cast members from The Sopranos—chief among them Tony himself, played as a child and a teenager by William Ludwig and Michael Gandolfini, respectively. (The latter is the son of The Sopranos James, which is obvious from the moment he saunters onscreen in plaid pants and an extra-wide tie.) These appearances have real symbolic value, but they also serve a baser purpose: fan service, pure and simple—a purpose all the more shocking given how rare it was in the original show. What’s that famous cut to black if not the ultimate denial of closure to an audience craving resolution?

There are deeper analyses to be done of Many Saints and how it fits into, or even alters, The Sopranos legacy. This blog is not one of them. Instead, in the spirit of The Sopranos underrated silly streak, we’re going to rank the performances that bring Tony and his crew back into our lives, if only for a couple hours. “I probably would have been content with impressions,” Chase told Rolling Stone of his cast’s efforts to channel iconic roles. “But I would’ve known that was wrong.” How many actors understood the assignment, and how many ended up closer to Saturday Night Live? Let’s roll the tape and find out. (Note that this ranking isn’t exhaustive; there are simply too many appearances from future Sopranos players, many extremely brief, so for the purposes of this post we’ve narrowed it down to the 10 best and/or most notable.)

Screenshots via HBO Max

10. John Magaro As Silvio Dante

I’m not sure we needed an origin story for Silvio’s iconic hairpiece, but I’m glad Many Saints gave us one (and that The Sopranos spared us six long seasons of that painful combover). As for the performance, Magaro ably channels Silv’s physicality—perma-scowl, hand gestures, and all. It’s the voice that takes us straight into SNL territory, a choice all the more baffling for just how much footage there is of a young Steven Van Zandt from his rock star days. Steven is not Sil, but that squawk doesn’t come close to either. It sounds like it should be coming out of a Muppet.

9. Lauren DiMario As Teenage Carmela De Angelis

As shocking as it is to see Carm with nary a puff of hairspray (and relatively minimal nails), some things stay the same. The makeup! Spotting Tony a dime because she’s always taking care of him! Intervening on Tony’s behalf in a way that ends up only hurting herself! It’s a very brief appearance, hence the low placement here, but it is a good one. Shout-out to casting director Douglas Aibel; Many Saints is only DiMario’s third official credit, and her resemblance to a young Edie Falco is positively uncanny.

8. Corey Stoll As Corrado “Junior” Soprano

I have no qualms with Stoll, a justly celebrated actor who’s also excellent in Scenes From a Marriage; he’s become such a staple in prestige TV since his breakout in House of Cards that it feels only natural to work him into the Sopranos fold. I’m simply not prepared to live in a world where uncle Junior is objectively hot. Uncle Junior! The guy with the coke bottle glasses and the back pain, which gets its own not-totally-necessary explanation in Many Saints! (Along with the “varsity athlete” comment, unnecessary exposition where Junior is concerned becomes a running theme.) Learning about the particulars of Uncle Jun’s sex life, especially where cunnilingus is concerned, is one thing; accepting that he used to be a strapping middle-aged man above the all-important 6-foot threshold is another. The casting also makes Junior’s defining trait—the debilitating insecurity that leads him to put a hit on Dickie and later attempt the same with Tony—a little harder to buy. If you need me, I’ll be burning sage to cleanse myself of impure thoughts.

7. Talia Balsam As Mrs. Jarecki As Dr. Melfi

OK, sure: Tony’s high school guidance counselor is not, in fact, a character from The Sopranos, and Talia Balsam (a.k.a. Mona Sterling) is not Lorraine Bracco. But the scene when she confronts a young Tony about his teenage antics is such a beat-for-beat echo of his early sessions with Dr. Melfi—a meeting sparked by a troubling incident, quickly traced back to his relationship with his mother—that she might as well have a DSM on hand. Teen Tony proves about as receptive to her subtle suggestions as the adult version, but without panic attacks that force him to take his mental health seriously, he’s less willing to keep trying. Still, Balsam does an excellent job conjuring the spirit of an empathetic, if slightly disapproving, professional woman with an outsider’s take on Tony’s clannish, insular world.

6. Satriale’s Pork Store As Itself

If New York was a de facto character on Sex and the City, then the sprawl of Northern New Jersey formed the backbone of The Sopranos. The Bada Bing was presumably just a glimmer in a young Silv’s eye when The Many Saints of Newark takes place, but a few other establishments make eye-catching cameos—including Holsten’s, site of the infamous Members Only encounter from the original finale. But the most welcome return belongs to Satriale’s, once and future site of gangsters smoking cigars, telling terrible jokes, and doing the Mafia version of water cooler talk. The Satriale’s of Many Saints is already a base of operations for Dickie, Johnny, and the rest of the crew, but it also looks like a functioning butcher, if one recently taken over by the mob. It’s nice to see the place in better shape, even if we know it’s headed for shabbier times.

5. Billy Magnussen As Paulie Walnuts

Paulie is a riff on Magnussen’s specialty: petty man-babies who wear their insecurities on their impeccably tailored sleeves. (Do check him out in the excellent Made for Love as tech bazillionaire Byron Gogol, a man whose money and genius can’t buy him emotional intelligence.) The Many Saints of Newark is a physical transformation for Magnussen, who’s unrecognizable under a wig and prosthetics. But once you know who plays the young Paulie, it makes perfect sense. The sheer indignation that a torture session might ruin his new mustard yellow jacket is both pure Magnussen and pure Tony Sirico—it’s the kind of unshowy transformation that’s the result of crack hair and makeup teams as well as great casting. The casual racism takes a little more range, but hey, that’s why they call it acting!

4. The Baby Who Plays Young Christopher Moltisanti

He may not be capable of verbal speech, but he still captures the essence of the character: whiny, prone to complaint, and correctly, instinctively afraid of his “uncle” Tony. What a great baby!

3. William Ludwig As Young Tony Soprano

Before Tony was a vicious criminal or even a teenage hoodlum, he was just a kid who wanted to hang with his cool uncle Dickie. Ludwig doesn’t have the genetic advantage of his castmate Michael Gandolfini, but that’s what makes his performance all the more impressive. As Mad Men once demonstrated, casting child actors is as difficult as it is all-important: you can get a wooden, expendable performance like the umpteen Bobby Drapers, or you can hit a gold mine of talent like Kiernan Shipka. Fortunately for Many Saints, Ludwig errs far closer to the latter in capturing boyhood against the backdrop of a criminal underworld.

What childhood innocence exists in the Sopranos universe is largely moot by the time you can walk, talk, and most importantly, perceive. That’s the lesson of Ludwig’s performance; his Tony is a carefree kid who horses around and plays in the street, but just as often walks straight into the Newark riots—or his uncle murdering his own father. Tony idolizes his elders enough to imitate them and start a gambling ring at his elementary school. He’s also observant enough to be afraid of the dangers that come with the family profession. Adult Tony knows the only ways out of his job are prison or a body bag; young Tony just doesn’t want to get shot like his dad’s friend. Ludwig channels the sensitivity that lands Tony in therapy to begin with, then manages to win Dr. Melfi over with surprising pathos. Maybe it’s that even mobsters were once children free of sin, just like everyone else.

2. Vera Farmiga As Livia Soprano

Of all the core Sopranos characters, it’s the hardest to see Livia as an actual human being. Tony’s mother appears to us as an Oedipal specter, a woman who’s long since let her grievances take the driver’s seat. (Long before Big Little Lies’ Madeline Mackenzie, it was Livia who tended to her grudges like little pets.) But beneath the complaints, the bitterness, and the homicidal rage, there’s a woman who once raised her children to semi-functioning adulthood, navigating the same ethical minefields as successors like Carmela. We just can’t see her from Tony’s beleaguered point of view.

That gives Farmiga perhaps the hardest job of anyone in the Many Saints cast. Fortunately, she proves up to the task. Her Livia has the gloomy outlook and undiagnosed depression—though it turns out, not so much undiagnosed as chronically ignored—that is passed on to her kids. She’s also a harried, present mother, one who has to deal with the indignities of her husband’s philandering and hold down the fort while he’s doing time in prison. For the moment, at least, her resentments are justified; Farmiga’s Livia is more raw and vulnerable than Nancy Marchand’s, a performance that gives context for her later atrocities without excusing them. She’s also more of a victim. Whining about your kid may be annoying, but does it really deserve an empty gunshot to the hair? Life may have been even harder on Livia Soprano as she got older, but it was never exactly kind.

1. Michael Gandolfini As Teenage Tony Soprano

Look at that face! Could you stay mad at him for stealing an ice cream truck, or forging his mother’s signature to play on the varsity football team? The answer is, obviously, no — because it’s such a relief to have not just Tony Soprano back in our lives, but a piece of the actor who played him.

Michael Gandolfini avoided even watching The Sopranos for years, understandably put off by the looming presence of his dad. The younger Gandolfini was on a trip to Italy with his father when he died of a sudden heart attack in 2013; James was just 51 at the time, Michael 14. That didn’t stop the now-22-year-old from starting an acting career, with a decent-sized role on The Deuce as the son of Chris Bauer’s massage parlor manager. But taking on the role that made his father an icon is a different matter entirely.

Bridging the gap between William Ludwig and James, Gandolfini’s teen Tony has gained some of the priggish entitlement that comes with being a middle-class white guy in general and the treasured only son of an Italian-American family in specific. Yet he isn’t yet hardened into the brute who’d strangle a man to death with his bare hands in the episode that redefined what it meant to be a protagonist on television. He’s sincerely wounded by Dickie’s rejection, and even before that gets lost in thought while blasting the stolen speakers his favorite uncle gifted him. It helps that Tony isn’t the center of this particular story; as a foil to Dickie, there isn’t too much pressure placed on Gandolfini, who can assist in his father figure’s journey rather than carry a full arc of his own. Put one way, casting an actor’s son in his most enduring role is cheating, an easy shortcut. Put another, it’s taking an opportunity, combining genes and talent into a performance you can’t help but believe.