Bruce Fretts praises HBO's strong cast of cinematic character actors

By Bruce Fretts
Updated May 16, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Jason Cerbone: Barry Wetcher
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Jackie Jr.’s heist goes wrong on ”The Sopranos”

You need only look at James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Lorraine Bracco to see what ”The Sopranos” can do for an actor’s career. Gandolfini was a busy but little known character actor (”Get Shorty”) before taking the role of Tony Soprano. Now he’s an Emmy winning leading man who shared equal screen time with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt in ”The Mexican.” Falco was a stage (”Side Man”), TV (”Oz”), and indie film (”Laws of Gravity”) actress before winning an Emmy as Tony’s wife, Carmela. Bracco, a former Oscar nominee (”GoodFellas”) whose big screen career had stalled, went from doing movies no one was talking about (”Medicine Man”) to the TV show everyone’s talking about.

This season, more actors have given their career a shot in the arm by appearing on the HBO drama, including Burt Young (”Rocky”), Charles S. Dutton (”Roc”), and Peter Riegert (”Animal House”). Just look at the list of ”Sopranos” rookies who figured prominently in the May 13 episode:

ANNABELLA SCIORRA Why did the actress, with a 10 year run in features, sign up for a multiepisode TV gig? Maybe because the role of unstable Mercedes Benz saleswoman Gloria Trillo allows her to show her range in a way awful movies like ”Mr. Wonderful” never did. As her fatal attraction to Tony has played out, Sciorra has gotten to be sexy, vulnerable, and crazy (Weren’t you terrified when she was driving Carmela home?). Even in her biggest film hit, ”The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” she played the victim. This time, Sciorra is in the driver’s seat.

JOE PANTOLIANO An in demand cinematic supporting actor (”The Matrix,” ”Memento”), he’s made an even bigger name for himself as Mafia captain Ralphie Cifaretto. At first, the character seemed like a rerun of last season’s loose cannon, Richie Aprile (David Proval, who’s moved on to a recurring gig on ”Everybody Loves Raymond”). But Pantoliano has expertly set Ralphie apart, subtly toning him down since Tony gave him his bump up.

JASON CERBONE The former Ford model went from ”Who?” to ”Who’s THAT guy?” status with his role as wannabe gangster Jackie Aprile Jr. He’s on the lam after his attention grabbing attempt to stick up Ralphie’s poker game went murderously awry. But even if we’ve seen the last of him on ”The Sopranos” (which I seriously doubt), I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from the charismatic Cerbone in the future.

PAUL MAZURSKY Director Peter Bogdanovich (”The Last Picture Show”) found a second career by playing Dr. Melfi’s therapist, and another filmmaker, ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills” director Mazursky, followed in his footsteps. Well, not for long: His character, Sunshine, was shot full of holes by Jackie Jr.’s crew. Mazursky also passed away on ”Once and Again” (as Sela Ward’s father), but he’s still doing better as an actor than as a director these days (his last film was the 1996 Cher dud ”Faithful”).

ISAACH DE BANKOLE Familiar to arthouse audiences from films like ”Ghost Dog,” the compelling actor made a strong impression as the priest / psychology student to whom Carmela confessed after her ovarian cancer / pregnancy scare. His cryptic advice to her (”Learn to live on the good part”) seems strangely appropriate. Actors live for such good parts.

So which new faces do you enjoy most — and who do you think will live through the May 20 season finale?

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The Sopranos

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