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'Sopranos' returns in a 'tornado' of publicity, star Edie Falco says

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2002

NEW YORK — A lot — too much — has happened since "The Sopranos" completed its third season.

It was May 2001 when HBO's drama wrung out a finale of unrelieved foreboding. On Sunday night, it kicks off another 13 weekly episodes. And not a moment too soon.

Set in New Jersey, where Tony Soprano presides as husband, father and mob boss, "The Sopranos" has clipped a glimpse of the Twin Towers from its opening titles. But it wastes no time addressing the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Ma really went downhill after the World Trade Center," Soprano soldier Bobby Bacala tells Tony in Sunday's opener. Then the none-too-bright Bacala adds, "Quasimodo predicted all this."

"Nostradamus," Tony impatiently corrects him. "Quasimodo's the hunchback of Notre Dame."

Whatever. The fourth season of "The Sopranos" seems poised to do something far more valuable for its audience than underline the painfully obvious. In its own way, it is bridging the abyss between Before and Now.

On "The Sopranos," no one rests easy. Not Before, and certainly not Now.

Now Uncle Junior is awaiting his RICO trial. The Feds have infiltrated Tony's ranks. Christopher, the surrogate son being groomed by Tony to succeed him, is not only a screw-up but also, unbeknownst to Tony, hooked on heroin.

On the home front, Tony's wife, Carmela, is pressing him to diversify their holdings beyond cash stuffed in mattresses "at zero growth."

"Stocks?!" he snorts, as if bowing to a better class of criminal. "We don't have those Enron-type connections!"

Full of headaches and hassles, life goes on for Tony, just as it does (with bloody exceptions) for the many others inhabiting his rancorous world. Tony's conflicts, foibles and psychotherapy continue to be our escape.

"The Sopranos" arrived in January 1999 with Tony collapsing in an anxiety attack and landing in a psychiatrist's office. The audience fell in love.

Since then the series, in the sure hands of creator-producer David Chase, has grown into a phenomenon not even Nostradamus could have foreseen.

It scored back-to-back Peabody awards in 2000 and '01, while James Gandolfini and Edie Falco (who play Tony and Carmela) have won two Emmys apiece. (The show's 16-month hiatus meant no Emmy consideration this year.)

Another indicator of its cultural impact: a mountain of "Sopranos" ancillary products.

Read about the eating disorder of Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who plays spoiled daughter Meadow Soprano, in her recent memoir. Buy the architectural plans for the New Jersey manse whose exteriors serve as the Soprano residence, touted by its real-life owner as "the most famous house in the country." Feast on Italian cuisine marketed under the name of Artie Bucco, fictional owner-chef of Nuovo Vesuvio Ristorante on the show.

"All this chaos!" marvels Edie Falco, who merely walking about Manhattan meets herself on magazine covers and bus-stop posters. "It's this whole tornado that goes on around us just coming to work and doing a show we're proud of."

Gale forces! Consider: During its third season, "The Sopranos" drew as many as 11.3 million viewers to a specialty, for-pay cable channel, thus rivaling the audience of any of the major broadcast networks.

"Before 'The Sopranos,' broadcast networks felt like cable was a negligible cohabitant of the airwaves," says HBO exec Carolyn Strauss. "After 'The Sopranos,' they had to wake up and say, 'Here's something we have to contend with."'

Even a "Sopranos" advertisement has taken on a life of its own. Shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, the evocative tableau gathers the 12 principals in what seems to be an Italian restaurant. It invites examination, as if careful study might be rewarded with clues to the upcoming season.

Falco laughs at the truth behind that photo session.

Leibovitz, she says, "posed us like that and took a million shots. By the end of it we're bored out of our minds. And THAT becomes the photo everyone attaches meaning to!"

In a recent interview at HBO's midtown headquarters, the 39-year-old Falco presents herself in jeans and thrift-shop jersey — quite different from the lacquered, big-haired Carmela.

But Falco is an actress who thrives on contrasts. As Carmela, she is the madonna moll. She fuses vulnerability with toughness, grace with corruption to claim the show's emotional center.

"Carmela is easier for us to identify with than anybody else," says Maurice Yacowar, writer of the new book "'The Sopranos' on the Couch."

"Tony and his colleagues are examples of people who have no control over their impulse to advance their self-interest," says Yacowar, professor of film studies at the University of Calgary. "But while Carmela is often tempted, she can control her urges. And yet she accepts all the benefits from living in Tony's world while managing to ignore her complicity with him."

Like most of the characters, Carmela is steadily evolving. ("Look for more drama in her relationship with Tony as she asserts her independence from him," Yacowar advises.)

Yet Falco is caught short when asked how Carmela has changed through the run of the show. "I don't have a bird's-eye view," she says.

"I have no idea how this acting thing works, at all," she goes on, "but I know the conditions under which to make it happen: I show up on the set and there's the crew, there's my 'husband' and 'kids,' there's my oven. Then I'm as alive and three-dimensional a person as I am in my real life."

The fourth season was filmed from October 2001 through this July.

Weeks earlier, on the morning of Sept. 11, Falco was part of an unthinkable reunion with her co-stars.

"I ran into Jim (Gandolfini) on the street," she recalls. "He was riding his bike downtown to see what was going on. He said, 'Go to my apartment."'

She did, joining others gathered around the TV.

"Then Jim came back and told us what he saw. It was surreal. There's my fake husband and all our friends from the show. Meanwhile, out the window you could see the fire."

A year later, New York in many ways is getting back to normal. Among other signs: a resumption of the city's famous incivility. This makes Falco's rising fame even odder for the 20-year Manhattan resident, who grew up on Long Island: People she doesn't know are being nice to her.

"'Good to see you!' 'Like your haircut!' That's something I'll never get used to," Falco says.

She'd better. This summer, she appeared in the John Sayles film "Sunshine State," for which she won critical raves. Then, shortly after "The Sopranos" wrapped, she opened on Broadway in a hit revival of Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune," co-starring Stanley Tucci.

In a few hours, she will report to the Belasco Theatre, where she, a confirmed morning person, will enjoy a pre-performance nap.

"It's so quiet. No one bothers me," says Falco, joking she might still go there to sleep even after the show closes.

That will be right after New Year's. A week later, shooting resumes for "The Sopranos" — its fifth, and likely final, season.

For viewers, the next feverish wait will have begun.

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