Martin Scorsese’s gangster movie masterpiece Goodfellas and David Chase’s prestige TV series The Sopranos share a lot in common. Both are dripping with style and philosophy, are energetic as their rocking soundtracks, and contain as much levity as they do drama. Perhaps most of all, both properties look at America through the lens of the criminals who refuse to wait in line for their taste.
It is difficult to deny the influence of Goodfellas and Scorsese in general on The Sopranos. As a clever callback, The Sopranos features over 20 actors who appeared in Goodfellas in major, minor, and even silent roles. Perhaps one can leave it to proximity or era, though one must assume that the decision acted as an unspoken tribute to the show’s stylistic predecessor or, in the words of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta): “It was out of respect.”
The fact that Lorraine Bracco was David Chase’s original choice for Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) may have been a little too on the nose. The Brooklyn actress’ performance as Karen Hill, the second lead to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, had already reinvented the mob wife character with a more significant voice and cerebral execution before Edie Falco took it to new levels.
Her Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) mental and spiritual guide through the show’s six seasons, was pivotal to the thesis and philosophy of the show, often becoming the pit of desire for Tony and vice versa. Bracco would receive Emmy and Oscar nominations for both performances, which became the most recognized out of a long career, though she was not pleased with Dr. Melfi’s exit from the show.
Michael Imperioli’s career has been nothing short of impressive. He’s a Spike Lee regular, a successful podcaster, a screenwriter, and is influential in the indie music scene. This would have been not easy to guess from his two scenes in Goodfellas, which were short but monumental to the narrative. By the time Spider appears, moviegoing audiences were led to assume he’d be taken under the crew’s wing but instead is bullied, ridiculed, and ultimately killed.
Imperioli received substantially more play in The Sopranos as Tony’s nephew and eventual capo in the Soprano crew. His story explores nepotism, loyalty, domestic abuse, and in later seasons substance addiction. To some, he is considered the least redeemable character in the show’s run.
He’s not only an incredible character actor; Tony Sirico gives gangster IPs a level of authenticity pulling from his own life experiences. He had been arrested 28 times, convicted of several crimes, and served four years in prison in the ’70s. He entered an outreach program that introduced him to acting.
Sirico is a fixture of the young Henry Hill’s childhood, playing Tony Stacks: the “you started it” guy who intimidates Hill’s mailman by pushing him into the pizza oven. Sirico’s inclusion in The Sopranos as the unforgettable Paulie Walnuts provided not just an incredible amount of comic relief but also pathos to the show.
The producers of The Sopranos were not prepared for how popular Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) would be with the show’s audience. He was to be written out of the first season but was brought back and given a season long-storyline about being an FBI informant after testing well and even provided an appearance in season three for a Christmas episode.
In Goodfellas, he’s given a silent walk-on part as the man pushing the fur coat rack at the Bamboo Lounge. In the thick of summer, the coats will have to wait for winter and spend time in the meat locker. Pastore’s accumulated 184 film and TV credits and counting, many of which feature incarnations of an unabashed gangster role.
Originally a standup comedian, Frank Vincent was given the opportunity of a supporting role in Raging Bull and has since become a Scorsese staple. An incredible talent with a distinct gravelly voice, Vincent’s demeanor ranged from harshly intimidating to in-your-face irritating between his range of performances.
Billy Batts’ (Vincent) provocation of Tommy (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas leads to him being beat to death, which in turn marks the beginning of the end for Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro). In one scene, Vincent became an icon and made Goodfellas one of the most violent films Scorsese put to screen. After villains that were either incompetent or internal during The Sopranos’ first four seasons, Vincent’s endlessly quotable Phil Leotardo represented an old-school fundamentalist leadership that The Soprano gang struggled to have an answer to in the final arc of the show.
Playing both Carmella Soprano and Karen Hill’s mothers in their respective works, Suzanne Shepard’s roles are so similar that they read like she transferred to a new workplace but received the same position. Both characters seem to symbolize mistrust for their sons-in-law and their illicit lifestyles, whether out of genuine concern for their daughter or simply being overbearing.
Karen’s mother prefers a Jewish suitor to an Italian and is frustrated by Henry’s late nights (without calling). Carmella’s mother seems to be ashamed of her Italian ancestry: she prefers to socialize with upper-class Italians and strongly dislikes Tony’s mother and her treatment of Carmella.
Sonny Bunz, the owner of the Bamboo Lounge and a financial casualty of racketeering scams by Paul Cicero’s (Paul Sorvino) crew, is played by Tony Darrow with a wet fish vulnerability. A walking symptom of the mafia’s effect on local businesses, he is lambasted and attacked by Tommy, has his credit run up, and then has his business burned down.
When he played Larry Boy Barese, a powerful capo in The Sopranos, he was given a sharper character who happened to be unlucky. Larry Boy is indicted in the first season and awaiting retrial for violating his house arrest in the last, and invests money in Chris Moltisanti’s horror film Cleaver.
While he’s better known as the man behind the Jigsaw mask in the Saw franchise, Tobin Bell strangely carried two minor roles in Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Granted, he’s not given much to do in Goodfellas, briefly appearing as Jimmy Conway’s parole officer with a firm handshake (cue “Gimme Shelter”).
Still, there’s a similarity between his appearances as beacons of the establishment driving the military school subplot as the disapproving cigarette-smoking Major Carl Zwingli, who tries to sell Tony and Carmella on placing AJ Soprano (Robert Iler) in the Hudson Military Institute after he is expelled. It is unclear if the dual casting was a callback or purely by chance.
Before Chuck Low was featured in bit parts in DeNiro films like The King of Comedy and Once Upon a Time in America, he was the actor’s real estate consultant and landlord. In Goodfellas, his role as Morris Kessler is a nuisance and constantly pestering Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) for debts, otherwise taking a beating for not paying his own.
His one-episode character in The Sopranos, Shlomo Teittleman is a Hasidic Jew who owns the Flyaway Motel with his son Hillel. He calls on the DiMeo crew to convince his son-in-law Ariel (Ned Eisenberg) to divorce his daughter and thereby give up his stake in the motel. Like Morrie, Shlomo does not hold up his end of the bargain with Tony; unlike Morrie, he survives, becoming one of the few characters in the series to do so and live to tell the tale.
A Scorsese regular who also appeared in several David O. Russell films and known to many as Vincent Chase’s (Adrien Grenier) accountant in Entourage, Paul Herman appears in the final act of Goodfellas as Henry’s Pittsburgh Connection. He’s the brown-suited greaseball who Henry scores cocaine from and who asks if the Hills want to see helicopters on Henry’s aftermath day.
In The Sopranos as Beansie, Herman’s character was used to portray the brutality of Season 2 villain Richie Aprille (David Proval), an old associate who renders him a paraplegic for not paying his debts while Aprille was in prison. Beansie ultimately moves to Miami after Aprille’s loyalty to Junior (Dominic Chianese) means Tony will not be able to tax him effectively.
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