As The Sopranos returns for another series, STEVE BUSCEMI steps out from behind the camera to play an ex-con aiming to keep his mob tendencies at bay. Brian Donaldson wonders whether anyone in the show can ever go straight. Additional material: Kenneth Hubbard/IPA.

n the DVD for series three of The Sopranos, Steve

Buscemi delivers one of those languid director’s

commentary chats over his sublime ‘Pine Barrens’ episode. Through the usual fulminations about how lovely all the cast and crew were without, you know, any exception and how much of a pleasure it was to work on this amazing show, he falls silent just as mobsters Christopher and Paulie enter the apartment of a Russian for ‘their fuckin’ money’. As Christopher cracks an ill-judged joke, Paulie coughs up one of his trademark chuckles. ‘I love that laugh,’ exhales Buscemi, barely concealing his joy of the moment. A true fan, a sad obsessive, a filmic professional with an eye for detail, Steve Buscemi is now firmly ensconced as one of the crew.

His reputation as an iconic director on The Sopranos is already cemented. That episode near the end of the series in which Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico, the only genuine ex-con in the cast, having served time for non-violent hold-ups in the late 60s) head off to the wintry wilds of New Jersey to bury what they believe is a dead seven-foot Russian only to become a quickly paranoid and slowly freezing hunted duo served two purposes. It certainly moved the series on towards its deadly climax but it is a 50-minute classic mini-movie all of its own.

In the following series, Buscemi cropped up behind the camera again in an episode notable mainly for an astonishing dream sequence in which Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is back in the arms of the beautiful, unstable Gloria (Annabella Sciona) who, in reality, has hanged herself partly because of his violent rejection. And Buscemi is back directing in the new, fifth and penultimate batch with a meandering episode in which Tony thinks he’s finally found a replacement for his dead mother who he once described in therapy as ‘that demented cunt’.

But now Buscemi is finally making a real, lasting mark in

o m: “81’ 5—12 Aug 2004

Sopranoland. by getting a role in the show which has made genuine stars out of James Gandolfini (da boss) and Edie Falco (his compromised wife. Camtela) and given a shot in the arm to the careers of Steven Van Zandt (Bada Bing! owner and the only capo without a mistress on tap) and Lorraine Bracco (Tony’s smouldering shrink). It’s something almost every wannabe tough guy in the business is after. Even the coolest geeks in Hollywood are after a piece. ‘I totally watched it as a fan,’ admits Buscemi. ‘There were a couple of times when I could have mentioned to David Chase that I‘d like to be in it, but I was always too shy.‘

Chase is the beating heart of The Sopranos. The man who was executive producer and sometime writer on The Rue/gm] Files and Northern Erposure as well as some not so successful productions (Grave of the Vampire for one), was desperate for a hit show. Back in 98, he was pushing the notion of a drama about a mobster who had issues with his mother (a scenario founded on his fraught relations with the Chase matriarch). ln time-honoured tradition, the major networks wouldn‘t give Chase the time of day. but cable channel HBO came to everybody‘s rescue.

The Sopranos was very nearly called Handy Man. Which would have been at the very least cheesy but actually not too far off the real mark; Tony’s major problems revolve around his two sets of kin at home and at work. His Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) tried to have his ‘little nephew‘ whacked while Tony’s mother (the late. great Nancy Marchand) virtually sanctioned the assassination. so miffed was she at her son throwing her into a nursing home (‘it‘s a retirement community!’ Tony would often wail in his own faltering defence). The rest of the time, Tony gets it in the neck from his awkward squad offspring, his wife understandably agita at the constant infidelity while his employees are never quite satisfied with their lot.