Although Dominic Chianese plays an aging character on a show where everyone has enemies and family members plot each other’s deaths, he has never worried that his character will be killed off.
“I always felt, ‘this guy’s funny,'” he said at a Tuesday Master’s Tea. “And you never kill a comedian.”
Chianese used his humor and charisma to entertain a crowded Branford Common Room at the Tea. He spoke about his experiences playing Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos,” as well as previous roles in “The Godfather II” and many stage productions.
Although his resume is long, Chianese said he considers his role on “The Sopranos” the highlight of his career.
“When I walked into the audition and looked at the page, I thought Uncle Junior was a great character,” he said. “The audition process was frightening, but I knew I was in good shape when [“Sopranos” writer] David Chase giggled while I was reading.”
Uncle Junior’s humor appeals to “Sopranos” fan Katherine Mardy ’05 as well.
“Uncle Junior is one of my favorite characters because he’s funny,” Mardy said. “He adds humor to the show, and he’s such a great singer.”
“The Godfather II” was Chianese’s first major film role. While filming, he learned valuable lessons from director Francis Ford Coppola, Chianese said. In one scene, Coppola repeatedly interrupted Chianese to tell him to change his lines, making the actor so flustered that he temporarily feared for his career. But Chianese said he later realized Coppola had manipulated him because his character needed to be nervous for the scene.
“That’s when I realized I had to make contact with the character,” he said. “You have to make the part real.”
Chianese was born in 1931, and grew up in the Bronx. He liked to sing from a young age, but was shy by nature and always had to be coaxed by family members.
After high school, he worked for his father as a bricklayer. One day he was riding the bus to work when he noticed an ad in the newspaper for a singing job. With his father’s permission, he got off the bus and walked toward the audition and a new career. He landed a spot in a touring Gilbert and Sullivan company the next day and was soon traveling the country.
Performing on stage “got into my blood,” he said.
Chianese has released two CDs, “Ungrateful Heart,” and “Hits.” His band, “The Cement Sidewalkers,” performs every Monday in New York.
After “The Sopranos” ends, he wants to continue with his music, as well as write an autobiography and do a one-man show, he said. He is also working on a new off-Broadway play with Woody Allen.
Several “Sopranos” fans in the audience said they were interested to see what Uncle Junior is like in real life.
“I was curious because the character can be one you love to hate,” Rufus Peabody ’08 said. “But I found him really engaging and friendly.”
When asked whether playing an aging mobster has changed him at all, Chianese reflected before answering.
“To me, it’s strictly a character,” he said. “My wife says I curse a little more, though.”