Editor’s note, July 8, 2022: On Friday, actor Tony Sirico, who played Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri on The Sopranos, died at age 79. In May 2021, The Ringer published this oral history on one of the show’s most beloved episodes (and one of Sirico’s most renowned performances), “Pine Barrens.”
Two mobsters chase a seemingly invincible man through the South Jersey forest. Then he vanishes, leaving only a trail of blood. As day turns into night and cold turns into much colder, the gangsters give up their search and go into survival mode. They bond, bicker, and threaten each other, until they’re finally rescued in the light of the next morning.
Today, it’s the kind of premise that a studio might instantly green-light as a budget-conscious horror movie. But two decades ago, it was avant-garde, even for a television series as radical as The Sopranos. The 11th episode of the show’s third season, “Pine Barrens” is a cross between an anti-buddy comedy and a living nightmare; at once hilarious, absurdist, and terrifying.
“In the woods, in the snow,” says David Chase, the show’s creator. “It has a fairy tale quality.”
But unlike a fairy tale, there’s no moral. The men who venture deep into the Garden State’s tree-covered expanse, Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri and Christopher Moltisanti, learn no lessons. The fate of their target is never revealed. And the episode’s B- and C-plots, one involving Tony Soprano’s tumultuous love life, are far more consequential to the overall narrative than the two wiseguys’ misadventure. Yet 20 years after “Pine Barrens” first aired, the duo’s evening out in the cold is what fans remember most. “It was very much a departure for the series,” says Sopranos writer-producer Terence Winter. “It was a totally new location for all these characters and more or less a self-contained episode. It was just a really different way to spend an hour.”
On top of being one of the most memorable episodes of The Sopranos, “Pine Barrens” is possibly the funniest. (“He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator,” Paulie says at one point, referring to the elusive man in question. “His house looked like shit,” Christopher responds, fully serious.) And it is also shorthand for the type of one-off showstopper that small-screen auteurs now periodically attempt to pull off. But back in the early aughts, no TV drama possessed as much coglioni as The Sopranos, which even before its ambiguous finale, had little interest in clean endings. Like in real life, mysteries often went unsolved. And sometimes, chaos reigned.
“Guys who seem to always be in control—or think they’re in control—of their lives, suddenly being in the woods, lose all power and ability to dictate their own fate,” says Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher. “It’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water story.”
Part 1: “Just Don’t Fuck This Up”
The story of “Pine Barrens” actually began during the planning of The Sopranos’ second season, when director Tim Van Patten had a nightmare so vivid that he thought it might make good fodder for the show.
Terence Winter (writer): Todd Kessler was another writer on the show. He and I were sitting in the writers’ room alone at the time and just talking and trying to cough up story ideas. Tim came in and said, “I had a dream about a story but it’s really stupid.” I said, “Well, what is it? It can’t be any stupider than what we’re talking about.” He said, “I had a dream that Paulie and Christopher got lost in the woods after trying to kill somebody, then they couldn’t get out.”
Tim Van Patten (writer/director, to author Brett Martin): My father was a horse player and he used to take me and my brother to Atlantic City. On the way down, he’d always try to make an adventure out of it, so we’d stop off at the Pine Barrens. He’d tell us these crazy stories about the Jersey Devil—half man and half beast—living in there. It was a spooky place with a kind of magic in it. So, I was lying in bed and I sort of half-dreamed this idea.
Winter: I said, “That’s a great fucking idea. You’ve got to go pitch that to David immediately.”
David Chase (The Sopranos creator): All I remember is Tim telling me about it. And I might not have responded except to laugh at it, and then he told Terry. And Terry comes to me about it.
Winter: David said, “Wow. That’s a great idea. Let’s do it next year.”
Chase: It seemed like it would be very entertaining.
Winter: We put a pin in it and then as we plotted out Season 3, I ended up writing it. And of course it was Tim’s story, so he and I shared story credit.
Chase: The idea of Chris and Paulie—who on some level hated each other—trapped in the woods together, I could just tell it would be something you could mine.
Steve Schirripa (Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri): Oh my God, they’re in Southern Jersey. These are North Jersey guys, so that in itself is hilarious. They may as well be on Mars.
Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti): Pretty funny, right? From the beginning, we had a sense that it was going to be good.
Winter: In TV, often you have your schedule for the year and your directors are hired months in advance. The sheer coincidence to get Steve Buscemi to direct it ...
Steve Buscemi (director): David had asked me to direct early on, but I just wasn’t available until the third season. It was intimidating, I have to say, after watching the show for two seasons and loving it.
Winter: He directed a movie called Trees Lounge. That’s where we got our casting directors, Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe. David Chase loved that movie and actually a lot of people in the movie ended up in the cast of The Sopranos.
Buscemi: I think I had met Jimmy Gandolfini just a couple of times before we started working together on the show, so I didn’t know him at all. And it’s hard not to see him as Tony Soprano. He was so good at being that character that even when you’re talking to him on set and he’s totally different—he’s a nice guy, his voice is different from Tony’s—you still can’t sort of separate them. So it was like, “How do I talk to Tony?”
Winter: I knew Steve as an actor and I was aware of him as a director. Immediately when I met him, we bonded over our similar sense of humor.
Imperioli: People go, “Well, he was in Fargo. So somehow it relates to that.”
Winter: So many people read into it and say, “Oh, it’s got a Fargo quality to it.”
Imperioli: It’s got nothing to do with it. He was assigned to “Pine Barrens” before there was probably a script written.
Buscemi: When I read the script, I just saw that it was gold. And I said to myself, “Just don’t fuck this up. Stay out of the way.”
Phil Abraham (director of photography): The thinking was, “Let’s build some woods on stage and we’ll just run them around and we’ll do it quickly. It’ll be, literally, a bottle episode.” But the show never really went down that road because I think these things are too important to David. It’s like, “You know what, you’ll see through it. You’ll see the artifice.”
Chase: We were going to film it in West Orange. There’s a park there.
Winter: At the 11th hour, there was a local politician who came out and made a lot of headlines saying he didn’t want The Sopranos shooting in Essex County because it gave a bad name to Italian Americans.
Chase: James Treffinger, I believe.
Winter: We had to find a new location at the last minute.
Chase: Harriman State Park in New York.
Winter: The funny coda to that story is that that politician, who happened to be Italian American himself, ended up going to jail for corruption. It’s like, you can’t make this shit up.
Part 2: “A Match Made in Comedy Heaven”
The heart of “Pine Barrens” is a dual character study of Imperioli’s Christopher, a Gen Xer whose ambitions include breaking into Hollywood, and ex-con turned thespian Tony Sirico’s Paulie, an old-school mafioso who survives by staying in his lane. The two actors may be separated by 24 years in age, but they had undeniable chemistry. It only made sense to pair them up whenever possible.
Imperioli: We were in similar circles. If you weren’t a friend of his, he could be very mean-spirited. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t really like him. So when we got cast on [The Sopranos] pilot, I’m like, “Fuck! What’s it going to be like having to work with this guy?”
He’s outspoken where other people would hold back. Maybe he was still skeptical of what I was going to bring as an actor. We did the pilot together and we had a good time. Right after the pilot, we went into another mob movie called Witness to the Mob. And we were working together on that. And by then, we started to get friendly. He became one of my best friends. And I think the character of Paulie had a lot of affection for Christopher and vice versa. And I think that that paralleled our own relationship in a weird way.
Editor’s note: According to his manager, Sirico was not available to be interviewed.
Winter: There’s a very, very thin line between Paulie and Tony Sirico. They’re practically the same person.
Schirripa: Michael’s an incredible actor. He knew this guy in and out. Christopher is a killer, a murderer, a junkie. He’s a whole lot of fucking things. He’s not just one-dimensional by any means. Paulie’s Paulie, right? There’s nothing you’re not going to expect.
Imperioli: Paulie, representing the old school. And the phenomenon of Christopher growing up in the mob after it’s been mythologized in pop culture. I mean, Paulie might’ve grown up with Cagney and stuff like that, but it wasn’t the same thing. Christopher almost felt a certain entitlement toward reaping whatever benefits would come out of being associated with that myth. His ambition is to be a writer, to sell a story to Hollywood because he’s seen it done so many times and now he’s on the inside of it.
Chase: I’ll tell you this: I’m sure Paulie thought Christopher’s dream of screenwriting was fucking bullshit.
Alan Taylor (director of nine Sopranos episodes and The Many Saints of Newark): In this day and age, they would have their own spinoff, probably. They’re such a great duo. Partly, it’s that Christopher is a loose cannon and erratic and Paulie is usually just so fastidious, and they’re both quick to take offense. So it’s volatile between them.
Chase: They were both irrational, hot-headed, impulsive, and not that bright.
Winter: It was very clear that these guys together were gold.
Buscemi: Those two actors, they just played it so seriously. To me, that’s where the comedy comes from.
Annabella Sciorra (Gloria Trillo): They’re a match made in comedy heaven.
Winter: I wanted to take Paulie from his most pristine to his lowest possible state in the course of one hour, so I wanted him starting out completely coiffed with his nails [being manicured], everything perfect, and then have him a disheveled mess by the end.
Buscemi: It’s two characters that we have seen in a certain way in almost three seasons, and now you put them in an environment that they are totally unprepared for.
Winter: Having grown up in New York and knowing guys like this, one of the interesting things was that it was almost like they felt it was a badge of honor to not wear a winter coat or clothing that was appropriate for winter. It was like a sign of weakness if you wore a warm coat when it was 10 degrees out.
Chase: I’m from New Jersey, and I can remember going to Newark Airport to pick up my mother in January. It was 9 degrees, and I was wearing just a sport jacket.
Winter: That right out of the gate—these guys are maybe walking into their deaths. They’re so underestimating what’s out there.
Part 3: “Get This on Fucking Film. It’s Not Going to Happen Again.”
Paulie and Christopher’s wild ride starts when Tony sends them to make a collection from a man named Valery, who owes Silvio Dante $5,000. But things go awry at his apartment when Paulie unleashes a barrage of Yakov Smirnoff–level anti-Soviet jokes and purposely breaks the man’s universal remote. This goads the Russian, who’s in no mood to take Paulie’s shit, into a fight. Their new nemesis, who’s first seen in a Russian club in the previous episode, is played by Vitali Baganov. It was his first major American role.
Winter: Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe brought in a couple of guys and Vitali was one of them. He was great.
Buscemi: I was concerned for him being in the freezing cold with just a T-shirt. He never complained. He really embraced who this character was.
Winter: Once we knew we cast him, I said to David, “You know what drives me crazy on network TV is when you get a character you’ve never seen before who suddenly becomes a really big force in that episode. Now we know we’re casting this guy for ‘Pine Barrens’ and he’s going to be the focal point of that, can we just insert him into the episode we’re shooting now?”
There was a scene that takes place in Slava’s club. [Valery’s there] so when you see him again, you go, “Oh, that’s the guy from Slava’s club. He doesn’t come out of nowhere.” I was really glad we were able to do that. For me it just makes the world bigger and feels more real.
Buscemi: What is so shocking about the scene when Paulie and Christopher go and pick up the money is how disrespectful he is. I mean, not even really disrespectful, but he’s kind of giving Paulie what Paulie is giving him, right? So, in his own way, he’s just standing up to him. “Why are you making fun of me? What are you fucking around for?” That’s his attitude. But Paulie just kind of looks down on him so much that he can’t believe that this guy isn’t being more respectful. It’s like a powder keg. As an actor, it must’ve been so much fun for him to do that. Because who got to do that on The Sopranos?
After the duo appear to kill Valery, they put him in the trunk of Paulie’s Cadillac, stop for gas, and decide to bury him in the Pine Barrens. The problem is, when they get there, he’s still alive. After they march him through the woods and force him to dig his own grave, he hits Christopher and Paulie with the shovel and runs off into the snowy abyss. Not even a head shot stops him. He was, after all, a former soldier, and, as Tony tells Paulie in a garbled phone call, “He killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handed!”
Imperioli: Most of the show was shot in North Jersey and New York City. We mostly lived in that area. So most of the time we’d shoot, go home. But we all went upstate.
Schirripa: We stayed at a hotel on the grounds of West Point.
Winter: It was like being on a class trip.
Schirripa: [Tony Sirico] didn’t like the pillows at West Point, so he sent a production assistant back to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to get his pillows off his bed. That was like a four- or five-hour round trip.
Winter: Once you lost daylight, the day was over. So our day started at 5 in the morning; we would set up and once the sun came up we’d shoot. By 4 o’clock we were wrapped, so by 5:30, everybody was in the hotel bar and having a ball.
Schirripa: We went out one night, I remember driving Jim, Michael, me, Steve Buscemi, and maybe one of the crew guys. And we go to some bar. There’s a lot of military guys up there. And there’s a band [and I look up] and Buscemi is singing, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
Imperioli: We probably drank a little too much.
Schirripa: The next morning people were hurting, man. They were fucking hurting. Sirico didn’t go out so he was breaking everybody’s balls. I remember there was a PA puking in the garbage pail.
Abraham: There was so much serendipity involved in what the end result turned out to be. I mean, we had no anticipation of the snow.
Winter: We finished prepping, it was Christmas week 2000, and we broke for the holidays, and then we came back and I think we started shooting like, January 3, 2001. And during the course of that week there was a major blizzard that hit the East Coast and we were like, “Oh shit. Now what?”
Chase: I immediately thought, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” Because those guys would be able to follow their own footprints back out.
Abraham: “What the fuck do we do now?” And it’s like, “Let’s shoot.” The very first shot we did was this Steadicam shot looking up through the trees, and the wind was sort of blowing these snow crystals into the sun, and we tilt down and we find them walking to the site where they’re going to start digging.
Winter: One of the early shots where they’re marching Valery into the woods, he’s catching snowflakes on his tongue. Those were the last snowflakes of that blizzard that just ended the day we started shooting.
Schirripa: There’s that one shot that I asked Buscemi about, they shoot it from overhead.
Abraham: In those days there were no drones or anything. If I had had a drone, I would have put [Paulie and Christopher] out in the clearest opening. I needed the tree for camera support. I liked that shot and I never thought twice about it. And then David came up to me, after it was cut and everything and he goes, “You know, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this. Why the fuck did you shoot that shot? That makes me think the Russian’s in the tree.” I said to him, “Well, David, look, I didn’t really think of it that way. I just wanted to get sort of this sort of birdlike perspective on the two of them.” And I go, “I had plenty of coverage for the two of them looking around and you didn’t have to use it.” He sort of begrudgingly was like, with his little twisted sour face, “Ah, yeah.”
Winter: At one point Steve Buscemi needed Tony Sirico to do several takes running through the snow chasing the Russian guy. By the third or fourth take, Tony was wheezing and out of breath and he’s like, “When people tell me they want to be an actor, they should fucking see this. Freezing my balls off, I’m exhausted, I’m about to throw up from running up a hill in the snow four times.” It’s not always fun and games. But it was really fun.
Schirripa: Tony was supposed to roll down the hill; he didn’t want to do it. He was afraid to do it.
Buscemi: He always did his own hair. He was very particular about his hair, and it did take some convincing to let us mess it up.
Winter: The two ways to get Tony to do something was if you told him, “You will be really scary or you’ll be really funny.” I said, “Tony, you will be so fucking funny for the audience to see you, who they’ve never seen except looking like a movie star, with your hair [messy].” So he took like two fingers and just messed up three hairs. I was like, “Tony, come on. Come on, man.” He’s like, “All right you motherfucker,” and he put his hands through his hair and he completely messed up his hair. I said, “Thank you so much.” I turned to Steve Buscemi, I said, “Roll camera. Get this on fucking film. It’s not going to happen again.”
Part 4: “Just Give Me That Piece of Meat”
While Paulie and Christopher are lost, the Sopranos are dealing with their own crises. After a game of Scrabble helps Meadow finally understand that her doomed wannabe wiseguy boyfriend Jackie Aprile Jr.—who plays words like “ass” and “poo”—is an unfaithful idiot, she confronts him.
Meanwhile, Tony is busy trying to fulfill obligations to his two families; his father-in-law has just been diagnosed with glaucoma and two of his underlings are freezing to death somewhere in South Jersey. Then there’s his comare, who’s mad at him for being late for dinner. Annabella Sciorra plays Gloria Trillo, who refuses to allow Tony to treat her as just another one of his women on the side. By the end of the episode, Dr. Melfi has helped him realize that the volatile Gloria reminds him of his mother. But on this night, he’s just expecting to try her London Broil.
Buscemi: The thing about that episode that everybody remembers is Paulie and Christopher in the woods. But I also loved the other two stories: Tony trying to please his mistress and his family obligations. For me, that was a big appeal of the show because it just wasn’t about mobsters doing gangster things.
I think it’s the totality of all those moments that makes that episode. Even when Anthony Jr.—Robert Iler—is just sitting on the couch and listening to his dad on the phone, it’s kind of amazing because is he getting an inkling of what’s going on? That’s what I think The Sopranos did so very well. There’s not a wasted moment.
Chase: I really liked the Gloria story, I thought that had a lot of good stuff in it.
Sciorra: I do hear people go, “She was nuts. She was crazy.” And I didn’t see her as that. I mean, I saw her as damaged, and I also felt that Gloria was trying, in all different ways, to be relieved of the pain she was in. Some healthy choices were happening when they first meet. She was seeing a therapist. My choice was that she was taking medicine for depression.
Chase: Before we started shooting, she said to me, “Am I mistaken, or is there a little bit of a strega in this woman?” Which means witch. And I said, “No, you’re not wrong.”
Sciorra: She says she prays a little bit, or she meditates. And then I had this theory that when over the holiday, she goes to Morocco, and maybe she has a really good time, smokes some hash and parties, and maybe she stops taking her meds. And so she’s a little bit different when she comes back.
Schirripa: She gets all dressed up, and she’s ready to [serve him dinner] and Tony just fucks up. She says, “If I wanted to be treated like shit I’d get married.” Which is a great line.
Winter: I had been in a relationship with a woman who hit me with a piece of London Broil at the end of a fight and I kind of just made a mental note—this would be a good moment for something—and we resurrected it for The Sopranos.
Sciorra: They gave me a prop steak, which is basically a sponge dipped in some sort of liquid that looked like what would come out of a medium-rare steak. And I knew it wasn’t going to work. I said to Jeff Marchetti, who’s in props, “This is not going to fly across the room. I’m not going to be able to throw it that far.” And of course, it didn’t. So then they gave me the actual steak. So basically, I threw it, I hit him, everybody laughed. It was funny. I have a pretty good arm. I was always athletic.
Buscemi: She was throwing it, the prop guy was throwing it.
Schirripa: There were stage hands trying.
Abraham: I remember a lot of people had an at-bat.
Sciorra: I actually have a Polaroid of me holding the steak, just before I threw it. And it’s actually quite funny.
Winter: Actually, Steve Buscemi is the one who nails him with the meat. Steve said, “Just give me that piece of meat.” Sort of like a Tom Seaver fastball at Jim’s head and just nailed him.
Sciorra: A lot of people want to take credit for it, as you know.
Buscemi: I’ll give it to Annabella.
Part 5: “These Little Packets of Condiments Become Like Caviar”
After serving as target practice for Gloria, Tony heads to his uncle’s house, where he meets Bobby Bacala, who’s going to help him track down Paulie and Christopher. In one of the funniest moments of the episode, Junior takes a whiff and asks, “What have you been eating, steak?” Then Bobby arrives dressed in hunting gear and Tony cracks up. To provoke genuine reaction from James Gandolfini, Schirripa had to get creative.
Schirripa: Jim already had seen me in the Elmer Fudd outfit. And he said, “How the fuck are you going to make me laugh tomorrow?”
Winter: In TV or movies, you shoot things from several different angles and they already read the script, so Jim already knows what’s coming. The first time you see it you get a legitimate laugh, but look, six times later, 10 takes later, it’s not as funny.
Schirripa: It was an early call. All night, I’m thinking, “Well, what can I do to make this guy laugh?” And so I go to the prop guy and I just say, “You got something? What have you got?” And then I seen he had a whole bunch of dildos. All kinds of just shapes and sizes. And I said, “Give me one of those.” I had this big, giant 3-foot dildo like an Italian bread, and I didn’t tell anyone, not even Buscemi.
Winter: He came in when he was off camera so Jim could react to it.
Schirripa: That’s what you see Jim laughing at when he falls down, because I’m twirling it around. It’s a big dildo. You could see Uncle Junior almost cracking. And so that’s where that came from. What [the prop guy] was doing with all those dildos I have no idea.
For Paulie and Christopher, the darkest hour is truly just before the dawn. After taking shelter in a plumber’s abandoned van, they squabble before finally accepting their predicament. “Captain or no captain,” Christopher says when Paulie claims he’s going to pull rank, “right now we’re just two assholes lost in the woods.”
Chase: There was this executive at NBC that we didn’t like, so we named the truck after him.
Abraham: The interior of the van, we completely did on stage. It was really seamless. Bob Shaw, our production designer, did such an amazing job.
Schirripa: That was all shot in the studio, which kind of makes it even harder as an actor. Because now you’ve got to make believe you’re cold.
Buscemi: They were in that park for four days, so they had a pretty good memory of what it was like. That’s also my job as a director to just say, “OK, remember it’s freezing.” Just little stuff like that; when you just add that layer, it just helps so much.
Imperioli: Steve, to me, out of all the directors, was the best at directing characters, which makes sense because he’s a great actor. By the “Pine Barrens,” I had already done this character for like 30 episodes or whatever. You maybe feel like you have all the answers, you know how he was going to respond in all the situations, and Steve would be able to lead me down a path that I might not have thought about.
Schirripa: It’s a different perspective. He’s an actor and a working actor, not an actor that worked years ago and stopped. He’s still an actor. And an actor knows what you’re going through.
Buscemi: A long time ago, a friend of mine, before I was directing my first film, gave the best advice. He said, “Let people do their jobs.” So, I felt like my job was just to sort of harness everybody’s talent and energy, and just let the scripts come alive.
Chase: I had that scene [in the van] in mind since my days of watching I Spy. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. I always thought that would be a good scene between them if they were trapped somewhere and all they had to eat was ketchup packets and mustard. And then this show came up, and it was perfect.
Buscemi: When we had food scenes, the actors really ate during the rehearsal sometimes. What are you doing? We’re like, “This is just rehearsal. Let’s save it.” There’s something about food almost as a character in that show. That’s such an important part of that culture. Food is sometimes used as a way to relieve stress, and here these guys are in the most stressful situation.
Imperioli: Suddenly these little packets of condiments become like caviar.
Taylor: I think [Chase] was surprised by how much the audience reacted to the food references and so they started serving them up.
Schirripa: [Paulie’s] got the mayonnaise [on his face] when the four of us are driving out of the Pine Barrens. And Tony says, “You got mayonnaise on your chin.” And he says, “What?” “Mayonnaise! Mayonnaise!” This is about the fifth or sixth time mayonnaise has come up on the show. And I asked David, “What does mayonnaise mean?” And he said, “It meant nothing.”
Part 6: “Everything Is Up on the Screen”
“Pine Barrens” aired on May 6, 2001, and quickly became both a critical and fan favorite. The episode’s strange energy makes watching it an exhaustingly euphoric experience. There’s just something mesmerizing about seeing two mobsters go haywire. “I just remember the feeling I had after watching the ‘Pine Barrens,’” Bill Hader said in 2019, citing it as an influence on the superlative Barry installment “ronny/lily.”
For their work on “Pine Barrens”—which ends with Tony and Bobby finding Christopher and Paulie and bringing them home, completely unaware of Valery’s whereabouts—Imperioli, Buscemi, and Winter and Van Patten all received Emmy nominations. Buscemi went on to direct three more installments of The Sopranos and joined the cast in Season 5. He later teamed up with Winter to make another HBO drama: Boardwalk Empire. As for the Russian? Well, his fate remains uncertain.
Imperioli: There’s something very visually beautiful about the two of us—when I had the carpet wrapped around me—trudging through the snow and the daylight. It’s almost like Waiting for Godot. Very theatrical.
Abraham: These two beloved characters who go to hell and back together; their chemistry, distrust, even possibly dislike for one another create great dramatic tension.
Schirripa: It’s probably the funniest episode. There’s a lot of humor throughout. An immense amount of humor.
Taylor: One of the most resonant things for the whole series was the lack of resolution. That’s central to the worldview of the show.
Winter: People were so trained by 50 years or more at that point of watching network TV, where all the answers are given to you at the end. It never sort of leaves you hanging. David Chase actually used to say, “The function of network TV is to make people feel that everything is OK and they should buy the product that we’re selling during the commercials.” Very often on The Sopranos, things were not OK in the end and then there was nothing to sell.
Taylor: We all thought it was funny. People kept saying, “OK, well, what episode does the Russian come back?”
Sciorra: I think it’s fascinating that they never find him. Where is he?
Imperioli: That and “What was the ending?” Those are the two big questions.
Buscemi: I don’t think people ask me as much as they’ve asked David Chase.
Chase: I don’t know what happened to the Russian. I should have known why there was such a big hue and cry about it, but I just kept saying, it’s just a fairy tale.
Winter: My idea was that for some reason Tony and Christopher go to visit Slava at his office. As soon as Christopher walks in, he spots Valery, who is sweeping the floor. They lock eyes and Christopher almost pisses his pants. Valery stares at him, but says nothing, then turns around and we see he’s missing a huge chunk from the back of his skull. Slava explains that Valery had been shot and found by some Boy Scouts on a winter trek through the woods—he has no idea who shot him, Valery is now a vegetable. After he was found, he was sent to a hospital, then back to Russia to convalesce. Slava is now taking care of him.
Chase: Terry really wanted to do it. Terry really wanted to pay it off. And I fought him on that.
Annette Alvarez (Vitali Baganov’s manager): I have known Vitali even longer than those 20 years that have gone by since the world was introduced to the Russian and one thing is constant: Vitali is very protective of his privacy. He reiterated what he always says when there is a reach-out: “Everything is up on the screen.”
Chase: I agree with that.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.