Tony and his brood are back for the most intense season ever

Somebody’s dead. This explains why the cast of The Sopranos have congregated outside the Irvine Cozzarelli Memorial Home in Belleville, N.J., on this sunny mid-May morning. It’s 10:30 a.m., and already James Gandolfini is channeling Tony Soprano — he’s sitting in a Teamsters T-shirt as he scarfs down a calzone. Frankie Valli (also known as Mob captain Rusty Millio) mingles and poses for pictures with the crew while Tony Sirico (who plays the one and only Paulie Walnuts) waves to a group of well-wishers honking their horns as they cruise down Washington Avenue. After a ridiculously long 21-month layoff, the gang is back to shoot the first episode of season 6 (the first 12 installments return March 12 on HBO; the last eight episodes begin airing in early 2007), and while smiles and backslaps are abundant, information about the upcoming season is not. This cast is on logline lockdown, but we’ll still go for broke and dig for a spoiler or two. Soooo, guys? ”I really can’t give you anything,” says Sirico, shooting a vintage Walnuts glare, ”because I’m not a rat.” Michael Imperioli (a.k.a. Christopher Moltisanti) doesn’t offer much more: ”What can I tell you? This is our sixth season. Somebody is dead. And it’s not me!”

Here’s what we do know: Season 6 begins with both of Tony’s families — biological and financial — closely monitoring New York crime boss Johnny Sack, who remains in jail and faces trial on several RICO indictments. Guest stars this go-round include Julianna Margulies as a real estate agent, Hal Holbrook as a scientist, and Ben Kingsley as…Ben Kingsley. Oh, and the last three minutes of episode 1 offer a Sopranos shocker for the ages. We also know that Imperioli’s enthusiasm over making it through episode 1 alive is with good reason: Even under regular circumstances, survival in Sopranoland is never to be taken for granted. But with the show now heading into its final year, actors have been nervously thumbing through scripts to see if they’re next on the list. ”If you think we’re not worried — all of us — believe me, we are,” says Steve Schirripa, who plays Tony’s brother-in-law, Bobby ”Bacala” Baccalieri. ”When you get the script in the mail, you look to the front to see if you’re in it, then you look to the back to see if they killed ya.” Considering we’ve now reached the point that creator David Chase considers the beginning of the end, it’s safe to say that when it comes to those scripts, a fair amount of people may not be making it to the back page.

A few hours later, the cast — now sporting proper funeral attire — have assembled inside Cozzarelli’s for shooting (a scene, that is). Schirripa, holding a mini-fan up to his face to stay cool, is taking plenty of additional heat for his liberally applied makeup. ”That’s a different face than I saw last night, you cherry-nosed motherf—er!” cracks Sirico. Finally, the bereaving begins. A production assistant ushers in a group of extras (”You all look very somber. It’s great!”) while the actors congregate after viewing the body of — oh, like we’re gonna risk our safety by telling you! Gandolfini, meanwhile, is having trouble spitting out a line: ”There are dead people all around us… We’re surrounded by death… I see dead people… What the f— is it?” On cue, the funeral office fax receives an incoming transmission. Life imitating art? Art imitating life? Either way, the death business is still booming.