Remembering the premiere of ‘The Sopranos,’ 20 years later

Sopranos anniversary

James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano, reads The Star-Ledger in “The Sopranos.”

The landmark television series “The Sopranos” premiered on HBO on Jan. 10, 1999 — 20 years ago this week. But Bruce Springsteen and I first saw it two days earlier, on Jan. 8, 1999.

How do I know? I sat across an aisle and a few rows back from him and his E Street bandmate (and “Sopranos” cast member) Steven Van Zandt as they watched two episodes of the show together at the HBO premiere party for it, at a Virgin Megastore movie theater in Times Square. Afterwards, the party continued at a nearby restaurant, John’s Pizzeria. More on that in a second.

A little background first. At the time, I was the pop-rock writer for New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, The Star-Ledger. And, since we saw ourselves as the paper of record for New Jersey, “The Sopranos” was a big deal for us. Not only was the show, obviously, set in New Jersey, but it included occasional references to The Star-Ledger itself.

Tony Soprano and his associates were Jersey guys. They didn’t subscribe to the New York Times, or the Daily News, or USA Today. Tony (James Gandolfini) had his Star-Ledger delivered to his driveway, where he picked it up every morning; Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) is thrilled when he’s mentioned as a “reputed gangster” in a Star-Ledger article, and steals an armful of extra copies from a vending box.

The newspaper would occasionally print a special, custom copy of the paper to be used in an episode, with headlines or copy reflecting the storyline. In return, we got a thank-you in the end credits. “The Star-Ledger: The Voice of New Jersey” or “The Star-Ledger: The Newspaper for New Jersey,” it said. Not a bad thing when this show is basically bringing New Jersey to the attention of the world.

An elated Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli) stocks up on copies of The Star-Ledger in which he is mentioned.

Of course, no one knew what a sensation “The Sopranos” was going to be when it debuted. But it was a big enough deal, even before it appeared on HBO, that both our television writer Matt Zoller Seitz and I were sent to cover the premiere event. I was there because of Van Zandt’s involvement and because there was a possibility that Springsteen might show up. (I don’t remember if we were expecting him there, or if that was a bonus).

So anyway, we went and watched the two episodes in the theater. I honestly wasn’t blown away at first. I thought they were okay, but it seemed weird to watch something intended for the small screen on a big screen, and obviously, it took me a little time to get familiar with all the characters and recognize the show’s brilliance. To jump ahead a bit, it was the fifth episode of that first season, “College” — where Tony and his high school age daughter go to look at colleges in Maine, and Tony happens to spot a mob informer who is living in that town, in the Witness Protection Program — that really hooked me. From then on, I was a major fan.

But getting back to Jan. 8, 1999 … We watched the episodes, then went over to John’s. I’m sure all or most of the cast members were there, but it really didn’t mean much to me, since I was so new to them. Matt had access to whichever cast members he wanted to speak to, no problem; my mission was to get a quote from Springsteen.

Easier said than done. Springsteen was sitting in the upstairs area of the restaurant, at a large table with a bunch of other people. The area wasn’t roped off, but he was sitting — I’m sure, by design – in a corner that made it impossible for anyone to just go up to him and start talking.

Matt and I informed an HBO publicist of our problem — I forget her name now, since I didn’t deal with HBO very often in those days, or later. And she very wonderfully helped us out. At one point, Springsteen got up to go to the bathroom. When he came out, she stood between him and the table and pleaded with him to come talk to us (and a few other reporters who were there, too). He did, just for a few minutes, but that was all we needed.

We mainly asked about his reaction to the shows, and he said a few things — one of them, I think, was a joke about how Van Zandt is just like his character in real life (or something along those lines).

At the time, the E Street Band reunion tour had been announced but had not started yet. It was not known if Van Zandt would be touring with the band again, as he hadn’t participated in the Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love tours, but was on board for the band’s reunion set at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening concert in 1995, in Cleveland, and for the band’s Blood Brothers EP, in 1996. I asked about that and Springsteen said that, yes, Van Zandt would be going out on the road, too, and so we had a little E Street Band scoop to go along with our “Sopranos” coverage the next day.

In the years to come — thanks to Matt, his TV beat partner Alan Sepinwall and their editors — The Star-Ledger covered “The Sopranos” exhaustively. We even ran recaps of the show, the Mondays after every Sunday airing; I’m not sure, but that may have been the first time a newspaper ran those kind of recaps (which are now ubiquitous on the web, of course, for popular TV series).

Many of the people who worked in that newsroom were serious fans, as well, and I remember that the “water cooler discussion” (not that we had actual water coolers) on Monday mornings was mostly about what had happened on the show, the night before.

I was only tangentially involved in our “Sopranos” coverage, occasionally adding a music-related story to the mountain of stories that Matt and Alan were generating. I do remember a very in-depth, in-person interview I did with Van Zandt, later in 1999, about “The Sopranos,” and the reunion tour, and a great solo album he had just released titled Born Again Savage. Quite a year for him.

Jumping to the present …

HBO2 is running a “Sopranos” marathon this week, in honor of the 20th anniversary.

Matt and Alan — now writing mainly for New York and Rolling Stone magazines, respectively, as well as other outlets — have written a book together, “The Sopranos Sessions,” that comes out this week. They’ll be the Word bookstore in Jersey City, Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m., participating in a night of “Sopranos” trivia, and will also appear at the Sopranos Film Festival that Matt organized, Jan. 9-14 at the IFC Center and the SVA Theatre in New York.

And on Feb. 9, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City will present a Sinatra/”Sopranos”-themed event in honor of the anniversary, with singer Michael Martocci and three “Sopranos” actors (Imperioli, Vincent Pastore and Steven Schirripa).

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