NEW YORK - David Chase looks like a nice guy. The 61-year-old television writer and producer is slight, wry and direct. But with a mere phone call, he strikes fear in the heart of actors - after all, his rap sheet is a mile long.
As creator and executive producer of the beloved, violent "Sopranos," Chase has sent character after character to his or her demise, held up for sacrifice to the gods of taut, uncompromising drama.
Five of the actors who were whacked by Chase in their previous fictional life on the HBO mob drama, sat down with their executioner Wednesday night at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.
Steve Buscemi (Tony Blundetto), Drea de Matteo (Adriana La Cerva), Vincent Pastore (Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero), David Proval (Richie Aprile) and Annabella Sciorra (Gloria Trillo) reflected on their fate in a panel discussion that also included "Sopranos" executive producer Terence Winter and was moderated by Bryant Gumbel.
"It's not a big deal to me," Chase stated flatly at the start. "These are not real people."
Their deaths came in a variety of ways: A shotgun blast on a country porch, offing in the woods, execution at sea, a bullet to the head over dinner and suicide off-screen - all endings woven into the often-ugly fabric of New Jersey mob life depicted in "The Sopranos." The show, which began in 1999, starts its final season April 8.
The actors all said they have come to understand the reasons for their character's killings as befitting the show's grim reality.
"What are you going to do, put him in witness protection? That's NBC," said Pastore, whose character was discovered to be a police informant.
But while the deaths are obviously fictional, they can also be a severe blow to an actor's career and happiness. Getting the bad news from Chase can be shocking.
"I begged," said Sciorra, who played a depressed lover of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) who killed herself.
Proval's character was dispatched by Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro) after Aprile smacked her. Having learned of his fate, Proval received another call from Chase and asked, "Is this the governor's office? Is there a reprieve?"
Buscemi was scheduled to remain for two seasons, but his arc was cut short after his character, a loose-cannon cousin of Tony's, committed a murder Chase afterward realized would require comeuppance. Chase called it "a blunder."
"I was really, really sad," said Buscemi. "That's really just about missing the greatest job I've ever had."
Buscemi could be considered a pro at being murdered; he's developed a reputation for portraying characters that die, from "Fargo" to "Reservoir Dogs."
For de Matteo the conclusion of her character was especially painful since "The Sopranos" had done so much for her career. She alluded to difficulty she's had since leaving the HBO show - she went on to the NBC sitcom "Joey," which concluded last year.
"They killed me on HBO, and then I went to NBC to commit complete suicide," said de Matteo, drawing a roomful of laughter. "I can't lie. I was still in love with Adriana."
For her final, tearful scenes, de Matteo said she channeled her real-life grief, thinking: "My career is over, oh my God!"
Each of the actors were able to take refuge in leaving with, as Proval said, "a top-notch exit." Chase explained that he's proud no character has ever died "face down in a bowl of linguini." He said the deaths come as the story dictates - that characters aren't lined up "like cannon fodder."
Buscemi, de Matteo, Pastore, Proval and Sciorra all showed that the wound from being whacked still smarts, even years later. But their abiding love for "The Sopranos" was abundantly clear, and the evening conversation together long after-the-fact was, as Proval said, "like therapy."