A feuilleton about the heroes of “The Sopranos” series, characters who they interpreted, and their life stories. In the 8th article the lead role is the lucid and inimitable consigliere Silvio Dante, performed by Steven Van Zandt.
Silvio Dante. A synonym for loyalty. There’s that famous scene where he sternly and convincingly presses Tony to have a morning whiskey with him after he kills Burt Gervasi who tried to lean him towards New York. The continuation of the scene, in the Alan Taylor-directed episode of Blue Comet, when he, Tony and Bobby “Bacala” discuss the next steps in the war against Phil Leotardo, symbolically boxing and announcing a no-compromise fight, is one of the most memorable in the entire series. And what would that scene be without one of the most impressive heroes?
The scene itself points to one irrevocable, immanent fact – Tony could always count on Silvio.
Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio, a consigliere who broke down his Hollywood predecessors from a similar thematic milieu to indivisibility with his acting. Facial expressions, style, and the wig, which many still can’t believe is not real hair. And “Silvio” was not even an actor at all, but more about that later.
Unlike most of his colleagues from The Sopranos, Silvio Lento (his original name) was not born in New York or Jersey, but he moved to that region at the age of seven (Middletown Township). He was born in Massachusetts, and everything in his life pointed him toward music.
His grandfather, a native Calabrian, raised him on the folk songs of his region. His teenage years were marked by the performances of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, which 70 million Americans watched on Sundays, and the Rolling Stones (Hollywood Palace, 1964). For the first time, the audience, and Steven with them, saw a rock band, although there had been great individuals before, like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
The Beatles also revealed a completely new world for him, in which everything is easier, while the Stones opened the door wide for other bands.
Stevie fit perfectly into that mise-en-scène since he was not interested in what society had to offer, he was a renegade and a rebel. He got kicked out of school because of his long hair, any further clarification needed? No.
High school bands and garage gigs flourished. After some time, most of his peers left their guitars to go to school, unlike the two “crazy people”, incompetent for the world, for anything but music – Bruce Springsteen and him.
They first met in 1965 at the Hullabaloo Club when Bruce first heard his cover of “Happy Together” by The Turtles. They played together in different bands until 1972, when Springsteen signed their first serious contract, while he was going to work in the construction of the route Interstate 287. He thought that the renaissance had passed, that the musical chance had disappeared.
A year after working on the highway, he went to play with the Dowells. On one occasion, he was Frankie Vallee’s opening act with them in Las Vegas, at the Flamingo Casino. The original Vegas – $20 rooms, half a mile from casino to casino, $2.95 buffets, prostitutes, a time when everyone had money, not just corporations.
Although Silvio was number two in the series, let’s not lie, he did not like to receive orders unilaterally. Neither did Steve, not even from the seasons. So after living in Vegas and Miami, he continued to wear Hawaiian shirts in Jersey, earning him the nickname “Miami Steve”. What is one winter if rebellion is bubbling in you?
After the saga with the Dowells, he founded the band, Southside Johnny, while simultaneously touring with the E Street Band. The guitar line in “Born to Run” is his work, so since 1975, his importance to Springsteen has been bolded in gold. Until the beginning of the 80s, when he left the band (to which he returned in 1999) in which his nasal voice was an indelible part of the legendary “Glory Days”, “Two Hearts”, and “Long Walk Home”… He produced 3/4 of the legendary album Born in The USA.
His music break probably had something to do with the fact that he became highly political and offended many. His direct views on apartheid through the single „Solidarity“ became too much to handle for record companies. Musicians are supposed to sing, not to think too much, the good old fitting into a box.
In 1985, he founded an association against apartheid, and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, no one wanted to sign it. He walked his dog, was on the verge of bankruptcy, and he was surviving by writing songs.
Enough about music! That is, just one more musical detail, and we are sailing towards acting. When the Rascals entered the Hall of Fame in 1997, the speech was given by Steve Zandt, he somehow reached David Chase, a big fan of E Street, who found Zandt’s contact through his company’s corporate files.
Casting director Georgina Walker recalled her subtle persuasion. Van Zandt: “I’m not an actor.” Georgina: “You are, Chase said that you are, you just don’t know it yet.”
Steve read for Tony and HBO thought that Chase was crazy – this guy never acted! David had to go in person to convince Steve to become Silvio, asking him which role he wanted.
“David, I Don’t want to take someone’s job, I’m not an actor (Steven) – Ok, I’m going to write you a role that doesn’t exist, what do you want to be? (Chase)Stevan Van Zandt & David Chase
A guy that owns a club, a loner, and a bit like he is still living in the past. He owns a huge club with a big band. Sound familiar? True, HBO didn’t give money for the imaginary miniature club amphitheater from the fifties, but it did for the strip club, where Steve will be Tony’s No. 2.
That’s when he starts to connect his private life with his acting life. The dynamic of number two was familiar to him from his band with Springsteen. You are the bearer of bad news, the one who pours cold water on your face, the one who must not be afraid. The first season was an experiment, a particularly strange process for a musician, and from the second season, everything begins to take its clear contours.
He could clearly hear the music, but you can’t see what you’re doing here, you won’t see it until six months from now, if even then. The wig was his idea, he knew he had to create his character from the ashes. Silvio Dante already existed somewhere in his head.
On the first day, everything was unreal, as was the first reading at the table. He wasn’t smart enough to even be nervous.
Everything changed when “Johnny Ola” (Dominic Chianese, famous in rowdy and Italian-American circles for his role in The Godfather) sat down at the table. That also symbolically gave him strength, so he entered the series fully dedicated. Once he even went to Chase and told him that “the script is great, but as an Italian the role of Livia does not cut ice for me, such a mother may not exist,” in his opinion, and he has visited a million Italian homes. Chase answered him curtly “that’s my mother”.
His real-life and film wife (Maureen Van Zandt, Gabriela Dante), went to acting school, and he experienced that world through her, she was a great help to him. Georgina Walker decided that she would be Silvio’s wife, and she had the background for such a thing. Raised in a mob family in Jersey, she based her role on her younger sister, a bit naive, and cute, with long nails and lots of jewellery. She perfectly portrayed a somewhat old-school mob wife, who did not interfere much with her husband’s work but was content with nice clothes and impeccable manicures.
The Sopranos, James Gandolfini
Chase booked him on the breaks of the E Street Band tour. He once came all the way from Paris to say “go fuck yourself”, and returned to the French capital. As close as he was to Chase, he couldn’t interfere with his musical choices either, that was his territory, even when he chose the “theatrical” songs of the eighties according to his own testimony.
A family man with balls, ethical and moral – as far as it is possible in the world of crime. And how impossible that is, is best evidenced by the scene in which he kills Adriana La Serva on Interstate 287. The sound of a flock of birds flying into the sky after the first shot, anyone who has followed this series closely can still recall today.
The description of his dark side was wholeheartedly elaborated by Chase, who never romanticized the life of crime. Mobster, but also sensitive. He knew when to blame Tony for nepotism, to Chrissy Moltisanti’s advantage, and to Patsy Parisi’s detriment. He was able to go toe to toe with Tony’s ego, vanity, and arrogance. But also with everyone else, like in the 51st episode of “Eloise” when he goes toe to toe with Paulie in a potentially inevitable clinch.
He also knew how to make us laugh, the legendary imitations of Al Pacino from The Godfather, all those confused facial expressions and gestures, like an owl with digestive problems.
The ambassador of the family, he did not have to pretend that it was not difficult for him to be the underboss, because he never wanted it, even in his music career. Hence the masterful acting of the asthma attack when Tony ended up in the hospital after being shot by his uncle Corrado.
James Gandolfini used to grab him by the sleeve and pull him to the mirror – “look at this face, can you believe that they chose me for the main role?”. Like Steve, he was more suited for an episodic role.
The scenes with Gandolfini were a real school of acting for him. He had phases when he couldn’t take it anymore, struggling with a paragraph, working for four hours at a time, while James had seven pages for all nine months. He carried the series on his shoulders.
Leave the fuckin’ cheese there! All right? I love fuckin’ cheese at my feet! I stick motherfuckin’ provolone in my socks at night, so they smell like your sister’s crotch in the morning! All right? So leave the fuckin’ cocksuckin’ cheese WHERE IT IS!Silvio Dante
They used to go to the bar, where they renewed that same conversation, in which Steve convinced him to enjoy acting and what it entails more, to do a movie during the breaks of The Sopranos, to not give up. Despite this, he often did so, disappearing for three or four days at a time.
He adored Chianesi’s acting, but also John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco) and his facial expressions, which always made him almost cry from laughter. Someone will probably dare to write what they all experienced together as a film crew in a memoir in the near future. Once he, “Bacala” (Steve Schirripa), and “Moltisanti” (Michael Imperioli) went to a Buddy Guy concert after a presentation at a casino.
Steve got drunk, chatted with the band, and went on stage to play with them. After that, they took a private plane to Tahoe, for the series finale, where ten thousand people welcomed them at the Hard Rock Hotel. He, who was a big rock star at the time, and who played in front of a much larger number of people, uttered only “holly shit”.
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There is no one who does not respect Steve. He and Maureen were married by Little Richard. Although they had originally planned a low-key wedding in Italy, they decided to have a gala evening, so Richard came from Georgia with a full entourage, and the first song was sung by none other than Percy Sledge, “When Man Loves a Woman”, accompanied by an orchestra who sang in the movie The Godfather!
A few years ago, being in Beatles mode, he made a tribute album. At the first show of the tour, Paul McCartney was sitting in the front row. Steve told him that he doesn’t go out, that he doesn’t have any commitments, and that he rarely appears in public. “Stay seated with Nancy and Maureen.”
After the first encore, without any preparation, Paul came on stage, and they performed the song “I Saw You Standing There”, thus giving Zandt one of the most impressive moments in his life. The day before, he received an invitation to star in Scorsese’s Irishman.
Concerts with Bruce in New York’s Madison, and with the East Band in Hyde Park, are no longer even legendary or cult, they have some other epithet, for which an adequate pedestal is still being sought.
Silvio Dante or Steve Van Zandt, you had to respect both of them, if you didn’t already love them. And we loved him very much, he never died for us in that shooting in front of Bada Bing, nor will he ever, like his beloved “older brother” Anthony “Tony” Soprano, after that dark screen with the track “Don’t Stop Believing” of the band The Journey.
Pavle Jakšić | Vitraž
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Cover ilustration: Tom Ralston