HBO Was Afraid People Would Hate Tony Soprano
Simply put, they were wrong.
It’s very interesting to revisit stories about great TV shows like The Sopranos back when they were in the making. And there are a lot of stories about this show, considering that it revolutionized TV forever. However, there was a disagreement in the first season between the show’s producer David Chase and HBO. And it was over Tony Soprano because the studio thought that this one scene would make the people hate him.
HBO was scared people won’t like to see Tony kill someone
You have to remember that back in those days, TV shows weren’t considered a respectable field for actors. The 90s were dominated by sitcoms like Seinfeld and FRIENDS, and that’s about all the TV people saw. But, The Sopranos was set to change that. But, that meant they had to take risks, and HBO was scared to take them.
In the 5th episode of the first season, Tony Soprano killed a snitch who was living in witness protection, named Fabian Petrulio. This episode made Tony, played by the late James Gandolfini, into an effective mob boss and a cold-blooded killer. However, that was a risk HBO was not willing to take.
This was because no protagonist from such a major TV show had ever killed a person on-screen. You have to understand that this was unheard of at the time. That’s why HBO was rightfully scared that the audience would hate Tony Soprano. Therefore, David Chase had to work hard to get HBO on board. He recalled in an interview with FoundationINTERVIEWS that:
Chris Albrecht (former chairman and CEO of HBO) said you know, in four episodes you have created one of the most compelling protagonists in American television and you’re gonna flush him down the toilet by having him kill that guy. Because it had never been done, and it was very brutal. He saw the film and he was like freaked out by it.
But, David Chase was persistent. He even told the executives at HBO to just skip the episode as it wasn’t related to the future or previous episodes. But, the studio wouldn’t have it.
The episode eventually happened
After a bit of massaging by Chase, HBO eventually gave in to his demands. It was probably because he understood how big of a risk HBO was taking with The Sopranos and Tony Soprano. He said in the interview:
This was uncharted territory. I don’t mean to make light of this. I mean if you’re a guy running that operation and you’re spending all this money on this show and all of a sudden, and you know television has been sort of like with all these phony TV morals and lack of reality and all of a sudden the guy that your entire network is riding on is gonna strangle someone to death with a piece of piano wire. That had never been done, are you crazy? You can’t do that.
This was what scared Chris Albrecht of HBO was scared about. But, David Chase had to convince him that Tony Soprano killing this rat was the only logical thing to do. He told HBO that:
I said you’re completely wrong about this. I said this guy is a mob boss in New Jersey. If he doesn’t kill this guy, he’s worthless. He’s worthless as a mob boss, he’s worthless as a TV gangster, he’s worthless as a movie gangster. I’ve lost interest in it. And I knew I was right about that.
And right he was. On TV Guide’s list of the greatest episodes of all time, it is ranked at #2. This episode changed the way we look at protagonists forever. And it paved the way for Sopranos to become the greatest TV show of all time. It couldn’t have gone any better for HBO.