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''It will be hard to leave her,'' Katey Sagal says of bidding farewell to Gemma after seven seasons. She remembers sitting with Charlie Hunnam (Jax) and Maggie Siff (Tara) before filming the pilot and listening to her husband, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, vividly recount their characters' past. ''I would have to remind myself, 'Oh, these aren't real people. He's making them up,''' she says. ''We came to it with an entire history of where they've been and why they are here now. And he did it with every single character—every single character has a life before scene one, episode one.''
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The show wasn't an easy sell. Other networks passed on Sutter's pitch before FX head John Landgraf bought it in the room. ''We were working in a genre that had never been successfully attempted on television,'' Landgraf says. ''Nobody really knew what the franchise of a motorcycle club is, what generates stories on a week-to-week basis. I believed in it in part because I do think that television, in general, underserves bluntly blue-collar people. It doesn't mythologize and portray their lives in as quite as compelling a way as it does superheroes, and white-collar people, and wealthy people. But I certainly didn't know ratings would be as crazily off the charts as they are.''
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Hunnam, pictured with Kim Coates (Tig), says one of his favorite fan encounters happened when he was killing time outside a shop in East L.A. waiting for new tires to be put on his Harley. ''These two dudes were walking down the road. I could see that I had become the object of their focus, but they weren't looking particularly friendly. These guys had tattoos on their faces and on their necks, and they were jacked up. I'm a pretty good judge of character like that, and these guys were absolutely 100 percent murderers,'' he says. ''They were walking towards me, and sure enough they walk right up to me, no smiles or anything, and I was like, 'Hey, what's goin' on fellas?' 'Nah, man, we just wanted to say thank you, homes.' I said, 'Thank you for what?' 'You keep the hood safe on Tuesday nights.' Which I thought was pretty deep. I definitely got mad street cred from this show.''
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As the most-watched series in FX's history, Sons has a passionate, broad audience that's as loyal to the show as SAMCRO members (represented here by Niko Nicotera, Coates, Hunnam, and Tommy Flanagan) are to their brothers. Just ask executive producer Paris Barclay: ''I don't drive a motorcycle, I drive a Tesla. I don't like to wear leather vests, I think they're sweaty and hot. I'm kind of a musical theater guy from an Ivy League school who really has nothing in common with these people, but somehow I got hooked into the story. I got hooked into the world that they're all involved in. I got hooked into the brotherhood. I got hooked into the family dynamic, which has some similarities with my own—without the murder.''
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It's the laughter between takes that Flanagan (center, pictured with Nicotera, David Labrava, Rusty Coones, Coates, and Hunnam) will remember most. ''There's so much madness going on. I mean all we do is f--- around, punch each other, and laugh our asses off. And then it's, 'Action!' and it's like dun-dun-dun, bad guys here we come! One extreme to the other constantly,'' he says. ''Seven years of that?I'm sad to see it go. I really am. I'll miss my boys and my girls.''
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Flanagan, with Nicotera and Hunnam, will also miss his commute to the show's dusty ranch locations north of L.A. ''When we finish work, we just hang out and talk and decompress, and then we get on our [personal] bikes and ride home at night,'' he says. ''The sun's going down, these beautiful landscapes.... I love riding home with DL, Charlie, and Boonie [Mark Boone Junior].''
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Hunnam—who came up with the idea for costar Ryan Hurst's ceremonial beard cutting when his character, Opie, was killed in season five—hasn't decided how he will say goodbye to Jax when production wraps at the end of October. He likes the idea of taking a long ride with a few of the guys who are most important to him (''Ryan Hurst being one of them,'' Hunnam says).
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''I always joke that this was like my Ivy League school or some prestigious college that I went to, and Kurt Sutter is the mad professor who just pushes us and pushes us and pushes us to do the best work we can do,'' Hunnam says. ''That's how I feel about this experience: I feel like I grew into a man on this show. I understand a lot more about the craft of acting and about who I am, and I made some pretty terrific f---in' friends along the way.''
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''I would say that I think Sons of Anarchy is a once in a lifetime experience, but then I don't really want to say that, because I always believe there's more to come,'' Sagal says. ''I never thought this would happen. I never thought what has happened to me before would happen. But certainly there will never be a Gemma Teller again. I just feel so grateful that I was able to play this part because it wasn't just my husband saying, 'Here's a part for you.' There's a whole bunch of people that have to say yes. So I'm so grateful that they all said yes and that I was able to rise up to it. It's been amazing.''
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For more intel on Sons of Anarchy's final ride, pick up a copy of EW on newsstands or buy it now.