The table-read. This is when all the performers in a given project, the lead actors down to the bit players who may have one to five lines, get together seated at a table and read-through the script aloud before going on to shoot it later. I was extremely lucky. I sat through two table-reads for episodes of THE SOPRANOS because I had bit parts in two episodes. This week marked the 20th anniversary of the show's premiere on HBO. What an original, provocative, memorable, brutal and brilliant show. It was a landmark television series. And what a cast.
I arrived. There was a card marked "Interviewer" and I picked up a copy of the script. I sat down to read it. When I turned to the second page, the page where dialogue for the Interviewer started, I saw the words "Big Pussy Speaks" written across the top of the page in bold black Magic Marker ink. Of course, I immediately thought, "Oh, this cannot be for me at all." I was positive that agent's trainee had unwittingly booked me to audition for a porno project on cable TV. That was...until I read the script. My character was to do a news program interview of an author who wrote about mob activity in the Tri-State area.
I remember that evening vividly. We were scheduled to start at 6:00pm on a sunny evening in Manhattan on the corner of Prince and Broadway, directly across the street from Dean & Deluca. I got to the building about 5:45 and saw a group of actors chatting outside. I assumed (correctly) that I'd be a part of their read-through group. A few of them were actors I'd seen frequently in my Chelsea neighborhood because there were casting offices in that area. I didn't know James Gandolfini's name but I recognized him from the movies ANGIE and GET SHORTY. I'd seen him in the neighborhood a lot. Edie Falco I recognized from the New York theater scene. Michael Imperioli had a side business one block down from my apartment. I'd see him opening shop just about every week in the mornings. And big Steven Schirripa was a well-known face from TV and films. When we got downstairs, actress Nancy Marchand was at the table. She looked a bit frail and she had a portable compact oxygen device to help her breathe.
I think of that evening often because it was weeks before THE SOPRANOS premiered on HBO. Just six months later, those actors would not have been able to just mill around on the corner of Prince and Broadway in late afternoon daylight because they would have been surrounded by TV fans.
As for the table-read, as soon as we started, Nancy Marchand took the breathing device off her face and. seemingly by sheer force of will, transformed herself into the strong and formidable mother of Tony Soprano. I was sitting right next to Annika Pergament, the news anchor playing my co-anchor. About five or six pages into the table-read, Annika and I looked at each with awe. We instantly knew what each other was thinking: "This writing is phenomenal."
Listening to that dialogue, experiencing that writing, was like hearing Jimi Hendrix play for the first time. It was amazing new music to the ears that absolutely rocked.
One thing you could tell from the actors in the group who we later saw as regulars on THE SOPRANOS. They were in it for the love of the art. They loved acting. They loved acting with each other. And they loved good writing. It's funny about life and careers. I often think of those few minutes watching them casually chat outside on the corner before going in for the table-read. Folks just passed right by them. Within six months, that would all change. Within six months, they'd all be some of the most popular new stars on national television in one of the best shows of the last twenty years.
One last thing: When I read my first line at the read-through, it got a laugh. It was not a comedy line and I was not trying to be funny, but the news anchor's comment on the bordello story had a typical New Yorker droll vibe. James Gandolfini turned around in his chair to see who delivered the line. He looked at me, smiled and gave me a "good work" nod."
That will always be one of the best reviews I've ever received in my career.
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