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The popular HBO series The Sopranos turns 20 years old in just one month! To celebrate this milestone, we’ll be sharing some Sopranos content and a behind the scenes look at the Sopranos Sites Tour throughout the years. Marc Baron, long time Sopranos Sites tour guide, tells us about the start of the iconic series in his first of four blog posts. Read on…

January 10th, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the first airing of the HBO hit show, The Sopranos. I cannot believe it’s been that long! I still can vividly recall my first days on the set filming the pilot episode.

Most of my work back then was as a stand-in/double in film and TV. What we primarily do is rehearse for the sake of the crew to set up lighting, plan camera moves, etc. When I first got my SAG card and was longing for on-set experience, I found that this type of work was a great way to get to know and interact with the actors, directors, cinematographers and others who make the project.

Since I had trained as both an actor and director in college, I had a good handle of what was needed on a set and quickly became in demand as a stand-in. I knew the lingo and got along with most people, and my time in the military taught me how to be a team player and deal with the demands of long days. My height, weight and hair coloring matched me to many working actors, so I was often sought out by casting directors.

By time The Sopranos pilot started in 1997, I had racked up 10 days of working on-sets with actors such as Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, and with directors such as Sidney Lumet. While it could be tiring, working on set was also educational and, at times, just fun! Imagine, kidding around with major stars or getting tips about acting or directing while getting paid!

The Sopranos was no different. I was brought in to stand-in for Michael Imperioli. There had already been a stand-in but for some reason he could not work, and I got the call. It was just a few days. We were shooting in the Vesuvio, the restaurant owned by Arte Bucco (a restaurant called Manolo’s in Jersey City), played by actor John Ventimiglia.

We were filming inside. A simple shot. Michael Imperioli and James Gandolfini simply drove up to the front, entered the restaurant then headed toward the back. We “second team” – that’s what they call stand-ins on set, the stars are “first team” – rehearsed a few times for camera framing. Then the first assistant director asked me to get behind the bar during the shot. The camera was in the back looking forward and they realized there was no bartender. This is something that often happens as a stand-in. They notice they need a body somewhere and have you jump in the background.

While they were doing some lighting adjustments, I overheard that the owner of this Spanish restaurant had Cuban cigars for sale. Having met Gandolfini a few times I knew he was a cigar lover and I pointed him over to the owner. A few minutes later Jimmy came back with 10 Cuban and pricey cigars, proudly laying them on the bar in front of me. I examined a few and showed him why two needed to be replaced. Instant friends.

We do one more first team rehearsal and now ready to shoot. Cameras roll. And as they enter, Michael Imperioli tosses a set of car keys at me, asking to watch out for the car in such a way that I would need to answer him. THAT would be an “upgrade” with a contract and much more money. David Chase was directing and after the take started, he needed to do it again and have me not speak. Second take. This time Gandolfini tossed a line to me. No luck. Chase made it clear they didn’t have the budget for an upgrade.  We got the shot but the atmosphere on the set was clear and I was looking forward to more days.

A whole year later, the series got picked up and we shoot the second episode. I am again Michael’s stand-in. We were shooting outside of the Bada Bing (Satin Dolls in Lodi, NJ). I chatted with Michael and others, who were all surprised and happy that this quirky show got picked up. Michael also stated that they were going to try and get me into a role somewhere along the line.

That second episode had me in the background again. I was working as Christopher’s stand-in (Michael Imperioli) for the day, but his scene was finished and the company moved inside, where they filmed one of the most iconic scenes: Tony hitting Georgie the Bartender with the telephone.  The handle of the phone was rubber. It was kind of fun watching how Gandolfini needed to hold the phone – because as he swung the phone it would wobble a little. A few practices and he got it just right. I was asked to go “deep” in the background and sit at the edge of the bar (there were no extras on the set that day). It was so dimly lit that there was no way anyone could identify me. And so it went. A lesson you learn as a stand-in is to “save your face.”

Sometime in the end of the second season (or was it early in the third season) I was then brought back as a stand-in, but this time for Artie Bucco. One day, one shot. Then the work became sporadic. I’d get a day here and a day there. But at this point I had already started as a tour guide on The Sopranos Sites Tour for On Location Tours.

To be continued….