Thursday 14 December 2017

Lise Hand: The night I made TV wiseguy Tony double up with laughter

Lise Hand

Lise Hand

WHILE living in New York in 2001, my local bar on the unrefined end of Manhattan's Upper East Side was the class of establishment known as a 'submarine bar' – long, no windows and full of men.

Marty O'Brien's was a blue-collar watering-hole, filled with cops, fire-fighters and shift workers. Sinatra and Springsteen on the jukebox, the Yankees or the Jets on the TV and bottles of beer on the bar, washed down with shots. If there was an umbrella in a drink, it was a real umbrella and it had fallen in by accident.

Conversations revolved around sports, politics, money-making schemes and neighbourhood gossip.

Except for Sunday nights.

From about 10.30pm onwards, half-an-hour after the credits had rolled on that evening's episode of 'The Sopranos', the bar was transformed into a sort of literary salon. Regulars would arrive in, fresh from HBO's latest wondrous offering, and launch into detailed critiques of the plot, the twists and turns and the authenticity of the dialogue, and argue over their favourite goomah/comare (mob mistress) and goombah (wiseguy).

There was one evening in May when everyone was in agreement. The episode titled 'Pine Barrens', directed by Steve Buscemi and featuring Paulie and Christopher hilariously lost in a New Jersey forest with an undead gangster on the loose, was instantly deemed a classic.

But the other unfailing point of unanimity was the salon's feelings towards the towering central character in this extraordinary drama.

Big, burly, messy, anxious, violent, put-upon despot Tony Soprano. He had mother issues, girlfriend problems, a complicated marriage and a precarious existence.

He was a Mafia boss, a harassed businessman, harried by the cops, by rival mobsters, by treacherous relatives, by unpredictable underlings.

He hung out with his fellow street soldiers in diners, in shabby offices, in the back-room of a pole-dancing club. He worried about his kids.

He killed people.

He was a 21st-century Robert Mitchum, a tough guy with a therapist. He was a character that the blue-collar boys in Marty O'Brien's could openly love without their heterosexuality being called into question.

And best of all, he was pure New Jersey. Not the shiny, polished, skinny, glamorous Gothamite so often portrayed on the big and small screens, living effortless lives of bubbly wit and sparkling champagne.

Tony was the Anti-Sex and the City. He lumbered around the determinedly non-glittering pavements of New Jersey, the sparkling skyline of Manhattan just a backdrop to his gritty stomping ground. He lived where most denizens of the Big Apple live.

He ate and drank and cursed like a regular guy. He screwed like a lucky guy. He schemed and punched and murdered like a wiseguy.

He was larger than life, but the Marty's crew could identify with parts of that life. He allowed them talk about normally untouchable topics, such as when he agonised about being in therapy and the demons that beset him, anxiously wisecracking to his shrink Dr Melfi: "You got any idea what my life would be worth if certain people found out I checked into a laughing academy?"

Nobody ever called him James Galdolfini. The lines between actor and character were indistinguishable.

Also that year, the show's writer, David Chase, gave a talk in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art about creating the epic drama. Afterwards, he took questions from the audience. Beside me, a gentleman had spent the entirety of the fascinating lecture with his head buried in a pile of copy books, correcting school essays. As the question session drew to a close, he shot to his feet and began barracking the writer for bringing disgrace upon New Jersey.

In vain did David Chase try to answer him, but the teacher kept on shouting until the writer simply gave up and the session ended.

I concluded that this was bad manners, ignorant behaviour and typified the worst type of arrogant, bad educator who was determined to learn nothing and impose their viewpoint regardless.

So I told him this, loudly and colourfully and in no uncertain terms.

Tony Soprano would have been proud of me.

As it happened, he was. Suddenly I heard this all-too-familiar rough yuk-yuk guffaw and, turning around, saw the man himself doubled up laughing in the row behind, those beady dark eyes fixed on the rowdy scene.

Reader, I fled from him. He was just too damn real. The boys in Marty's were gutted.

Irish Independent

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