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‘Sopranos’ reunion recap: New ‘Bada Bing, Bada Zoom’ scenes for 2020, Kevin Smith and The Russian

What are the characters from “The Sopranos” up to in 2020? A.J. trades cryptocurrency. Meadow is a criminal defense lawyer (but her mother, Carmela, still hopes she’ll enroll in medical school). Christopher spends hours online talking about “Q,” the “deep state” and Jeffrey Epstein on 4chan. Bobby Bacala is working on his model train track,…

What are the characters from “The Sopranos” up to in 2020?

A.J. trades cryptocurrency.

Meadow is a criminal defense lawyer (but her mother, Carmela, still hopes she’ll enroll in medical school).

Christopher spends hours online talking about “Q,” the “deep state” and Jeffrey Epstein on 4chan.

Bobby Bacala is working on his model train track, which annoys Janice greatly.

Tony Blundetto is using his healing powers as a reiki master to help soothe clients during the pandemic.

How do we know this? After all, several of these characters died in the show.

All were resurrected for “Bada Bing, Bada Zoom,” a new sketch that was a highlight of the “Sopranos” virtual reunion fundraiser Friday night. The remote gathering of the “Sopranos” cast, conducted over Zoom, benefitted Friends of Firefighters, a group formed in the wake of 9/11 to support working and retired firefighters in New York.

Thanks to the enduring love for the New Jersey-set HBO series, the event raised more than $100,000 for the firefighters. Behind the scenes, Steve Buscemi, who played Tony Blundetto in the show, helped organize the benefit through his work with the organization (Buscemi, 63, is a former New York firefighter).

Series creator David Chase was on hand for the fist part of the reunion (see video below). And even if he and Lorraine Bracco will never agree about how they decided that she would be Tony’s therapist, Dr. Melfi — and whether they actually had lunch that one time, which seemed to be a sticking point — it was the ultimate in Zoom entertainment for any “Sopranos” fan. There were even a few surprise guests.

The host of the reunion was Jersey’s own Kevin Smith. The “Clerks” and “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” director from Highlands, ever the professional fan, reveled in his love of “The Sopranos” for the gig. Smith, 50, even offered a walk-on role in his upcoming movie “Twilight of the Mallrats” to anyone who would contribute $5,000 to the fundraiser.

“Sopranos” writer Terence Winter, who ended up taking Smith up on that offer, delivered the new scenes for “Bada Bing, Bada Zoom,” which he wrote with Chase. The sketch, like the reunion, took place over Zoom.

The occasion? A group online therapy session with Dr. Melfi. You see, Janice (Aida Turturro) won several hours of online therapy at a school auction.

The therapist, played by Bracco, visited with each member of the cast to get a temperature check.

In addition to Bracco and Turturro, the group included Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), AJ (Robert Iler), Carmela (Edie Falco), Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), Gabriella Dante (Maureen Van Zandt), Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa), Blundetto (Buscemi) and Furio Giunta (Federico Castelluccio).

Setting the sketch in 2020 allowed for topical references, like when Big Pussy uses Trump’s “grab ‘em by the ___” line. The character has apparently been lifting Amazon packages from people’s porches during the pandemic.

“Well at least I know what happened to my Vitamix blender,” Melfi replies.

“Obviously this has been a challenging year, what with COVID, the masks, the stay-at-home orders and the faltering economy,” she tells the group.

“Yeah, thanks,” Bobby Bacala says. “I feel better already.”

“Bobby!” Janice says, reprimanding her husband.

Vincent Pastore, James Gandolfini, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler

Vincent Pastore, “Sopranos” creator David Chase, James Gandolfini, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler at the “Sopranos” premiere party in January 2000.Scott Gries via Getty Images

The new scenes, performed by the cast in their separate homes, also gave fans the ultimate tease: the return of The Russian.

The character, whose actual name is Valery, managed to evade Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, escaping into the snowy Pinelands in the fan-favorite “Pine Barrens” episode directed by Steve Buscemi. Valery’s fate has been a curiosity ever since. No one ever saw him again.

“Many people have been wondering what happened to me,” actor Vitali Baganov said in his thick accent as part of the sketch. Sure, he could tell, he said — but “David Chase won’t let me.”

Christopher put on shades to try to conceal his identity from Valery. It turns out he met with the Russian in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election — to talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

“Scored me points with President Putin,” Valery said.

Sopranos reunion

Steve Buscemi offered up his Directors Guild of America award nomination for the “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos” for a large donation.Tiltify/screenshot

Buscemi said it was great to see all of the actors together again — the cast previously reunited in 2019 to mark the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere — but it was the characters that triggered a visceral reaction.

“It was very moving to me just to hear their voices,” he said.

The reunion also allowed members of the cast to reminisce about their beginnings on “The Sopranos.” Smith asked everyone about their auditions.

Aida Turturro (Janice), who was friends with James Gandolfini before the show, remembered really wanting to play Tony’s sister.

“If I don’t get it you gotta lend me my rent money,” she told Gandolfini, who died in 2013, at 51. The actor won three Emmys for playing Tony Soprano. His iconic portrayal of the North Jersey mafia boss would become a major formative influence for other TV greats, like Walter White of “Breaking Bad.”

Sopranos reunion

It was a very holiday “Sopranos” scene as cast members reported from their living rooms, flanked by strands of lights and Christmas trees.Tiltify/screenshot

Edie Falco (Carmela), however, thought the show was about singers, given the title, and assumed she wouldn’t be called in. She was working on another HBO show, “Oz,” at the time.

Falco got a call to come in the day before a “Sopranos” audition, but didn’t have high hopes.

“I was sure I would never get it,” she said.

“With the paycheck from the pilot I could pay off my student loan,” said Falco, 57. “It changed my life.”

David Chase recalled telling Bracco that if she was going to play Dr. Melfi, she’d have to take heed of one fact.

“You know, you’re going to have to keep your hands in your lap,” he told her.

As for Michael Imperioli?

“I originally auditioned for Meadow but I was too old,” he said. His character, Christopher Moltisanti, was originally named Dean.

“David has a poker face and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through,” Imperioli, 54, said of his audition. “I walked out of there thinking I bored the hell out of him.”

For his counterpart, Drea de Matteo, the audition came down to one word: “Ow!”

Somehow, she stretched it into 15 syllables. Voila — Adriana La Cerva was born.

Federico Castelluccio (Furio Giunta) said he originally auditioned to play Johnny Sack and knew it wasn’t a good fit. For his Furio audition, he ended up ad-libbing some lines in Italian, even after Turturro, a friend, told him to stick to the script. He was nervous that the extra flourish had cost him the job — until he got the call.

Sopranos reunion

No one had heard a peep from The Russian, aka Valery, until Friday. The character, played by Vitali Baganov (third row, far right) disappeared into the woods in the fan-favorite “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos.”Tiltify/screenshot

For his part, Chase remembered the origins of the show as a simple ask:

“My wife always said to me, ‘You’ve gotta write about your mother. She’s really funny.’”

The writer, who revisited the world of Tony Soprano for the upcoming prequel film “The Many Saints of Newark,” said he “dined out” on so many stories about his mom.

“Her dialogue in that pilot script was all stuff my mother said,” he said of Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano, chillingly played by Nancy Marchand in the first two seasons of the show. (Marchand died in 2000, at 71.)

New Jersey’s own Vera Farmiga will step into Livia’s shoes in “The Many Saints of Newark,” which is set in Tony’s 1960s childhood, during the time of the Newark riots. James Gandolfini’s 21-year-old son, Michael Gandolfini, stars as a young Tony in the movie, which was filmed in Newark, Bloomfield and Paterson, among other local places.

After a delay from its original September release date because of COVID-19, the film is due out on HBO Max and in theaters March 12, 2021.

The Sopranos

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in a scene from the finale of “The Sopranos” filmed at Holsten’s in Bloomfield. The ice cream parlor was also used in the upcoming prequel movie “The Many Saints of Newark.” Falco said she never expected to get a part on the show, which she originally thought was about singers. Craig Blankenhorn | HBO

When fans made donations for the reunion, they sent in questions for the cast. Steven Van Zandt, a member of the E Street Band who played Silvio Dante, fielded one he was intimately familiar with — why no appearances on the show from The Boss?

“We talked about him coming on as my brother,” Van Zandt, 70, said of Bruce Springsteen. “I never really seriously talked about it with David.”

However, Springsteen did eventually make an appearance on another show with Van Zandt. He showed up as his character’s brother in the Netflix series “Lillyhammer,” set in Norway.

Chase said he actually considered the Springsteen song “State Trooper” for the opening sequence of “The Sopranos.” He ended up using it elsewhere, over the end credits of the last episode of the first season.

Michael Gandolfini

Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini’s son, will play a young Tony Soprano in the “Sopranos” prequel film “The Many Saints of Newark.”Theo Wargo | Getty Images; HBO

Chase, 75, who grew up in Clifton and North Caldwell, also answered another question (but not any about the infamous cut to black in the 2007 series finale — he’s already answered those). This one was about why he decided to film the show in New Jersey instead of setting up shop elsewhere and calling it New Jersey, though a large amount of the show was also filmed at Silvercup Studios in Queens. He replied with a bit of (perhaps unintentional) deadpan:

“I was aware that there was an organized crime presence in my neighborhood.”

Smith asked everyone for their favorite characters. In this, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) emerged as one clear favorite for his pointed dialogue — some of which is unprintable here.

For Steve Schirripa’s money, it was all about Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), known for his winning personality and shocks of silver-white in his Eddie Munster-like hair. Schirripa, who played Bobby Bacala, called Paulie’s hairstyle “The Wing.”

“It never took off like Rachel on ‘Friends,’” said Schirripa, 63, referring to Jennifer Aniston’s shag cut that became “The Rachel.”

The Sopranos

From left: “Sopranos” stars Tony Sirico (Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri), Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Vincent Pastore (Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero).HBO/Getty Images

Tony Sirico, who made Paulie a fan favorite (”He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator!”) was one cast member who, like Chianese, wasn’t at the virtual reunion. But that didn’t stop everyone else from paying tribute.

Terence Winter, the writer who appeared at the reunion alongside Chase and series director Tim Van Patten, said they would often incorporate parts of Sirico’s actual personality into Paulie.

Winter, 60, also recalled how in the days before social media, a major spoiler for the show somehow did not gain much traction. The National Enquirer, he said, had secured photos of Tony snuffing out Christopher on set. However, no one seemed to put much stock in them — maybe there was some whack-related fatigue happening — so the find fizzled out.

Other supporting cast members showed up as surprise guests further into the nearly three-hour reunion: Little Carmine (Ray Abruzzo), Billy Leotardo (Chris Caldovino), Patsy Parisi (Dan Grimaldi), Anthony Infante (Lou Martini Jr.) and Little Paulie Germani (Carl Capotorto).

Capotorto, 61, said that when it came to getting whacked on the show, you knew you were a goner if one of two things happened, but especially the second one:

1. David Chase asked you to lunch.

2. The makeup department called asking for a cast of your face.

“The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel movie, premieres March 12 in theaters and on HBO Max.

Friends of Firefighters is still taking donations at the “Sopranos” reunion Tiltify page: tiltify.com/+sopranos/reunion.

Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a subscription.

Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected] and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.

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