June 25, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It Mob Family
The Sopranos
AGES: James Gandolfini, 37; Edie Falco, 35; Michael Imperioli, 33
WHY THEM? As depressed Mafia underboss Tony Soprano, wife Carmela, and her impulsive nephew Christopher, Gandolfini, Falco, and Imperioli have made us a TV drama we can’t refuse. Filled with suspense, familial intrigue, sex, drugs, psychotherapy, guns, and deliciously sardonic comedy, HBO’s The Sopranos has added up to the most addictive prime-time phenom since Twin Peaks. The secret to the show’s success? To Gandolfini, it’s simple: ”There’s not all that happy-go-lucky bulls—.” But we know better. It’s all in the, uh, execution. It took this trio’s Emmy-worthy performances to spin television gold from creator David Chase’s pungent vision.
ON THEIR CHARACTERS: Believe it or not, Falco admires Carmela: ”She’s a lot of things I wish I was. She’s very succinct and to-the-point…demonstrative. Confident, but at the same time not embarrassed about the things she’s not confident about.” Imperioli forgives the hotheaded Christopher his excesses: ”He looks up to Tony as a father figure — his overzealousness in trying to impress Tony [gets him] into trouble.” As for Tony, Gandolfini sees him as just another anxiety-ridden guy next door. ”The problems he has are the same as a lot of families have; he just happens to have a different job.”
WEIRDEST SERIES FALLOUT: For the balding, bearlike Gandolfini, it’s been his meteoric rise to hubba-hubba-dom. ”I thought they’d hire someone much more suave. Suave is not something that comes to mind when you think of me.”
NEXT: Sheesh, these guys have more going on on the side than Tony does. In addition to a new season of shows that begins shooting this summer, Imperioli executive-produced and cowrote Summer of Sam (with Spike Lee), which blasts into theaters July 2. And Falco goes back inside for the third season of HBO’s prison drama Oz, premiering July 14, continues her role in the Tony-winning Broadway drama Side Man, and stars in the Sundance winner Judy Berlin, due early next year.

It Crocophile
Steve Irwin
AGE: 37
WHY HIM? Irwin’s hair-raising encounters with toothy crocs, venomous snakes, and Komodo dragons on the Animal Planet hit The Crocodile Hunter make him an extreme Marlin Perkins.
SCARIEST CAREER MOMENT: When there was a ”timber rattlesnake with his heat-sensing pits focused on my groin. You get necrosis if you get bitten, and if I’d got bitten there, you’re talking amputation. I’d have to kill myself!”
WHO’D STAR IN HIS BIOPIC? ”Me. But I’d like Harrison Ford to be my dad.”
NEXT: New Hunter episodes this summer.

It Bat Revivalist
Paul Dini
AGE: 39
WHY HIM? He’s cocreator of the Kids’ WB!’s Batman Beyond, the season’s hottest cartoon, which moves the franchise into the future with a young Batman in a cool Batsuit.
MOMENT HE ALMOST GAVE UP: ”In the ’80s, writing for a bad cartoon show based on a videogame, Q*bert.”
ADVICE HE WISHES HE’D GOTTEN SOONER: ”Young cartoonists think they should be grateful they’re working, and producers exploit that — stand up for your work!”
NEXT: Two comic books: Emu & Thylacine, a Hollywood parody for Matt Groening’s Bongo Comics (due in 2000) and Jingle Belle, about Santa’s daughter, out later this year.

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