A feuilleton about the heroes of the Sopranos family. A portrait of actor Steve Schirripa, who quietly and without pomp in the role of Bobby “Baccala” became one of the most authentic characters in the best series ever filmed.
The beginning of the second season of The Sopranos, back in 1999. The then Corrado Soprano’s errand-boy, an unassuming man in charge of the groceries and sandwiches in a plush Fila tracksuit, was a breath of naivety and gentleness in the cruel world of uncompromising criminals. As such, he was the only one of them faithful to his wife, alongside New York boss John Sacrimoni. For all Bobby, for better acquaintances, Steve Schirripa – a New Yorker, who grew up in Bensonhurst, a neighbourhood celebrated in Oscar Benton´s song.
In his younger days, as a promising basketball player, he spent the whole summer preparing Chris Malina for the rookie NBA season in Brooklyn. I know it’s hard for you to visualize that, but give it a try. Malina’s further course of his career is well known to everyone, which should tell you something about the talent of the hero of our story. Boiling Italian blood, educated (he graduated from college in Brooklyn), he spent most of his life surrounded by people from the underground.
Bensonhurst was buzzing with criminals. The owner of the ravioli store where he was a regular guest was a contract killer. He played softball with Mikey Scars, who later became a serious criminal. Some of his comrades received 25 years in prison, especially after the RICO extortion law.
The Sopranos and him were an organic compound, as well as everything else that director David Chase imagined.
When living in New York became financially unsustainable, he went to Las Vegas. After delivering pizza, he got a job as a bouncer at the Jubilation Club (later Shark) whose owner was the famous singer Paul Enka. At that time, the largest disco club in the world, in which three million dollars were invested, was a “place to be” to all famous faces.
The regular guest of “Jubby” at that time was Tony Spalazzo, a real character from the American underground, who Joe Pesci played in the movie Casino. He was reported to the police by Frank Colada from Chicago, which qualified him to become a technical advisor on the film, and after filming he ended up in a witness protection program. Bobby knew him from before, and even today, as a free seventy-year-old man, he takes tourists to the parts of the city of Las Vegas where mafia murders were committed.
Spalaco adored Steve and often showered him with gallant tips. Mutual respect was crowned later at Spalac’s wedding, where Schirripa was the “frontman”, with the special task of not allowing any FBI agent to infiltrate the celebration. Fate later wanted him to have a role in the Casino – as a silent witness, he was sitting at the bar, in a scene in which Pesci stabs a man with a pen.
There were only two clubs in Vegas at the time, Jubilation and The Brewery. “Jubi” was always crowded, sometimes until nine in the morning. O.J. Simpson, Bob Hope, Bill Cosby, later Tiger Woods, and Scotty Pipen, are just some of the names of regular guests at the legendary club on Harmon Avenue. Hardly anyone was more stingy than the last two.
“The girls they went out with paid their guilds, it was such a time, every outline of fame was charged for.” Moments when David Copperfield demanded that his boot got filled with beauties for a 2$ tip, or when Jenifer Lopez “sneakily” took a $500 tip left to the croupier by Ben Affleck, are just some of the night anecdotes that Schirripa remembers. It is paradoxical that the night most clearly shows our true faces.
Steve later became the entertainment manager (mâitre d ’) at the Riviera Hotel, owned by mogul Mesulam Riklis, who was married to actress Pia Zadora. He has worked with comedians like Drew Carey and Kevin Polak. He experienced the “prime time” of old Vegas, the reign of Sam Davis, Frank Sinatra. Even today, he owns a VHS tape on which a drunken Sinatra sits with Zadora and Joey Will, a comedian. He was at the end of his career at that time, and without serious assists, he could hardly finish one song on his own.
Steve never harbored illusions that he would become an actor, let alone an indelible part of the series, even when he went through the casting. It seems that David Chase did not expect something like that either. Although he had episodic roles even before Sopranos (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino), for him, acting was not only a hobby but also a hidden passion. Without drama, aspiration, and with the support of his wife, he asked the agent to secure him an audition for something that seemed close to him.
He put his job at the Riviera on hold, telling them – I will be absent for the next three days! Traveling to New York cost him $24,000, two thousand more than his earnings (even his agent and friends suggested he turn down the role). He had a stable life, a job, he was also helping the host Jay Len, he wrote books, and received an offer from the producers of Sopranos that was 1/3 of what he was earning in Vegas.
He continued to repay his house in Vegas, while still only renting an apartment in New York. In New York, Steve was alone in a room with Georgien Walken who was initially reading for the role of FBI agent Skip Lipari, and he was utterly nervous. Casting director Walken told him, “Listen, you’re not fit for this, but we have something else – Bakala”. He read again, this time to Chase, who told him “very well.”
When he returned to Los Angeles, at 8.30 in the evening, a call came from Georgien – “I know I should have called your agent first, but you were great, you got the job.” After that sentence, he begins to live David Chase’s dream.
When he got the role of Bobby, he read the script and saw strong derogatory names by which the character was called because of his obesity. “They chose the wrong guy for the role, I’m not that much heavier than Tony at all.” Not long after, he received the wardrobe from the screenwriter, which had Broadway accessories that made it thicker. He wore it for a couple of seasons until they realized that he was naturally thick enough, because of eating on sets. The wallet was still thin, but that soon changed.
After 20 years, he returned triumphantly to Brooklyn, where he had previously struggled. This time, a completely different picture. Fame, success, they wouldn’t let him pay for dinner. In the first row in “Madison”, he was like the “Yankee” player, whose big fan he was, as well as Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti). With the respect he received from Chase as an actor, the authority and importance of the character he interpreted in the series grew in proportion and parallel to Schirripa himself.
At the time, a lot of quasi-Italian mobsters wanted to be a part of that movie story. After the first series, everyone knew that participating in this HBO project would be a ticket to eternity.
While Imperioli was gambling in Rino, criminals came to him with “we can act like that too”.
Schirripa has always emphasized the importance of an acting instructor, who gives different views and options. Gandolfini also had Susan Eston, who became a close friend of his. The final review, however, was Chase’s, and there was no room for improvisation, especially that which is the fruit of laziness, not lucidity. If he didn’t like something, he would change the scenes and the actors, without notice or a time limit that would oblige him. He had the capacity and perfectionism to record everything again. From there, Chase’s actors became characters whose roles they interpreted forever and ever. Due to that, many later disappeared, and their rise symbolized their fall.
According to Steve’s memory, Gandolfini memorized his dialogues sometimes for even 16 hours a day, and he would return home to study for tomorrow. “Bobby’s” first episodic role was a marathon of 17 hours. “No one had it like Jimmy, we all had certain roles and breaks, and he carried it daily, and then he got a son on top of all the duties. Tony Sirico (who played Polly, his favorite character in the series) acted the least. In one episode, they set the scene in his apartment. They wondered how Polly’s room would look like. David said <the guy is the guy> let’s just go to Sirik’s real apartment and copy him. And so it was”.
Steve often told Jimmy to go to any talk show, like Oprah, and show who he really was – an educated, schooled, generous guy, a passionate music lover. Low-key and casual in “Birkins”, but he never asked for that kind of validation. Even when he made paid appearances because of the rest of the team, when he didn’t even need more money, or when he wrote a check for almost $40,000 to everyone in 2004. On one occasion, Steve and Gandolfini were invited to open a casino together, and James was visibly indisposed. The next day, while they were sitting with the agent, even though Steve got his share of the money, he just told the agent – “give my 10 thousand to him”.
Anyone who has watched the Sopranos still vividly remembers the fight and parts of the monopoly game equipment in Tony’s mouth recorded for the episode “Soprano Home Movies”. Chase calmed us with landscapes near Montreal, the carefree chatter of Bobby and the only antihero who became the object of worship before he served us one of the most faithful scenes of a fight between two adults. The episode was filmed at the house of actor Roy Seider’s ex-wife.
In July, Jimmy was in trouble with his knees, unable to film the scene the right way. Six months later, the same scene again, in a studio that cost $250,000 to build, just for that one scene, which looked identical.
The fight itself was being filmed for a day and a half. Gandolfini demanded that the conflict went “as far as it could.” Schirripa had a bracelet that cut his arm quite a bit. Two fat guys, out of shape beating themselves to exhaustion, almost without stunts. “We hit each other quite hard, to the point of a real fight. We could do that because we were very good friends. If the scene had been filmed in the same way by people who didn’t know each other, honestly, it wouldn’t have been pleasant at all. “
Everyone, including Gandolfini, was worried about the fate of the character they were interpreting, especially after Bompenser “Pussy” left. He was no exception. It would not only be an acting end but in a way also a family one, along with the existential one – termination of employment. All the actors in Sopranos emphasized that feeling of intimacy, the shooting of the scenes grew into a friendly gathering. They asked questions, they listened. Nobody wanted to leave.
However, at one point, it was time to say goodbye, and only David could tell him the harsh truth. New York, two in the afternoon, Chase on the line— “Steve, we’re coming to see you. “That’s when I started thinking. In the winter parka jacket, in the middle of January, he told me from the door – you know why I’m here. It meant a lot to me that he came.”
What followed was that cold winter, the scene with the train, the end, and one of the deaths that were the hardest for the fans.
In the scene in the episode “Soprano Home Movies”, when he talks with Tony in a boat with a Heiniken about life, death, about the fact that he never killed anyone, it’s as if he predicted his last sequence in the series, in the episode “Blue Comet”. “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” he told Tony. The Lionel Blue Comet electric train, which went from Manhattan to Atlantic City in three hours back in 1928, wandered carelessly through an adult toy store, which Neil Young, also a great collector, could not resist. That store does exist, it’s called “Trainland”, and it’s located in Linbrook on Long Island. If you ever go there, there is a big billboard that says “Episode 85” The Blue Comet “was filmed here. This is where Bobby got whacked ”. They still keep the same train, as well as the fake bullets that were used during the filming of the scene, along with photos of the employees with the film crew.
In his hand, Bobby held a Packard blue Pullman passenger double and imagined what it used to be like when gentlemen drank Negroni in it. The irony is that his last words were “He don’t care”. He, the one who cared most about others, and who in the series was closest to the halo of the good of the whole “glorified crew” as New York boss Carmine Lupertaci mockingly called Sopranos once.
Bobby will forever be an association for silk shirts, which would serve as bedding for many, with food – steaks, ziti, an egg sandwich, and pepper. Velour Fila tracksuit and a feeling of hunger when you see him eating Italian delicacies. If you ever go to New York, don’t be confused if you see him at Venieros pastry shop eating canola, Il Cortile, or Harry’s Pizzeria on Murray Street while eating margarita. If he’s not there, he must be walking in Battery Park or watching the Knicks. Since he loves to read biographies, he is no less frequent in the Barnes & Noble bookstore.
In 2014, Steve launched a line of organic vegan pasta (Uncle Steve’s). How many would Bobby have eaten if he was still alive? He slightly reworked his mother’s old recipe and imported all the tomatoes from Italy. Until then, he had never eaten anything from a can, and as he says – “I already have money, I wouldn’t have to do this without loving it. At my old age, it wouldn’t make sense to ruin my credibility by selling you rubbish.”
Satriales is now only a part of our imagination (it was just a scenography in the town of Carney), but for Bobby, it is dubbed in real life by Faicco’s Pork Store on Blicker Street. Since he bought the meat, all he had to do was buy extra side dishes – provolone, mozzarella, soppressata, and roasted peppers.
Bobby will remain a synonym for fidelity and the saying “still waters run deep”. Who would have thought that at the end he was the “silent Gary Cooper guy” that Tony constantly glorified in the series. He recently stated “whatever I do, I will always be Bobby Bakala, and I have no problem with that.” I don’t believe his fans have a problem with it either.
Pavle Jaksic | Vitraž
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Cover ilustration: Tom Ralston