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Pandemic TV hero Lorraine Bracco on why 'The Sopranos' was a quarantine hit

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Lorraine Bracco's voice sounds like a hug feels. It is a voice for belting "Oh, my God!" at news that delights or amazes her, for describing people she adores as "delicious." On "My Big Italian Adventure," the HGTV show documenting her renovation of a house in Sicily that she purchased for one euro, her voice booms joyously down cobblestone streets as she takes a sledgehammer to a wall that needs removal — "Oh, yeah! So satisfying!" — or as she good-naturedly shouts "Momentito!" to a local who is speaking faster than her interpreter can interject.

Bracco needs an interpreter because, though her grandfather and great-grandfather were from Sicily and though she found fame in two of the most iconic Italian American pop cultural artifacts of our time, "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos," the closest the Bay Ridge native comes to speaking the mother tongue is her brassy Brooklynese with un poco italiano thrown in, assisted by enthusiastic hand gestures.

Between "My Big Italian Adventure," which premiered in October, and "The Sopranos," which according to HBO has seen its viewership increase nearly three times during the coronavirus pandemic, Bracco, 66, was an unlikely star of the strange and isolating year we've all endured. She was a bit of monoculture emerging from our ever-fragmented consumption habits.

During a phone interview from her home in the Hamptons, she sounds very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, especially "The Sopranos," which she hasn't ever seen in full because she doesn't like to watch herself. (She saw "Goodfellas" for the first time only five years ago.) But she does remember seeing the "Sopranos" pilot before the series ever aired and being so blown away that, at showrunner David Chase's insistence, she called up then-HBO chief Chris Albrecht to demand that he put the show on the air. He allegedly was deliberating, weighing the quality of the program against the steep cost of its on-location production.

When Bracco saw the then-unaired pilot, she says, "I royally flipped out. I said, 'This is the best thing I've seen in I don't know how long. Better than any movie. Any series. Anything!'" She remembers "screaming at the TV: More, more, I want more!" Bracco had never called an executive before, although by this point she had already starred in "Goodfellas" and was probably the biggest name in the "Sopranos" cast. But Chase insisted that she go for it. You can imagine why. It's hard to say no to that voice.

To Albrecht's hedging about the expense of the series, Bracco assured him — based on nothing, really, but her own irrepressible gusto — that it would all be just fine. "I said, 'Listen, it'll work itself out,'" she says. Within three weeks, HBO picked up the show. And the rest, from the opening theme to the final frame, is history.

The last time everybody was watching "The Sopranos," which aired on Sunday nights from 1999 to 2007, Bracco could tell she was part of something huge because she would get yelled at in restaurants. Not in a good way, by fans telling her they loved her. In a bad way, by the people who worked in the restaurants who upbraided her for being the reason their dining rooms emptied out during what was supposed to be the dinner rush.

"(At) every restaurant, on Sunday night, people would clear out before 9," she says. "And they would be mad at me when I would come in," she says. "I'd be like, 'Yo, it's not my fault.' So I would get yelled at, 'Oh, you. You with that show.'"

Lately, Bracco says, she's been hearing from a younger crowd. "I can just tell you the other day I had somebody come in and fix a refrigerator, and the guy is, I want to say, 30-ish. And he's like, 'Oh, my God, is this really you?' ... He goes, 'I love "The Sopranos." I just watched it. I watched all the seasons.'"

He's not the only one. During the pandemic, with millions of people stuck at home with nothing but our screens to distract us from the end-of-days energy beyond our front doors, "The Sopranos" arguably had its biggest year since its original run. The series seems to be especially beloved by a new generation eager to revive even the objectively lamest parts of the late-'90s and early-2000s — unflattering jeans, paying attention to the British monarchy — as they discover a classic that, miraculously, doesn't feel dated so much as it feels like a period piece that somebody shot last week.

It's a long tail for an experience Bracco, in a "Sliding Doors"-type twist, almost passed on entirely. Initially, Bracco was approached to play Carmela Soprano, the role that ultimately went to Edie Falco. But after "Goodfellas," Bracco was adamant that she not play another mob wife. She didn't really want to play another mob anything. "I was offered every mob script everywhere in the world, and that was a little frustrating," she says. "I even remember thinking when they handed me 'The Sopranos': 'Oh, God, another mob.'" Her agent had to grovel to get Bracco to read the script; when she caved, she loved it with the zeal of the converted, but only on the condition that she play a different part: Jennifer Melfi, Tony's therapist.

As a result, one of Bracco's best-known characters is the one who seems, in many ways, the least like her. Melfi is the even keel to Tony's volatility — a thoughtful, occasionally horrified audience surrogate. She dresses in tasteful neutrals and speaks in measured tones. Every consonant is crisp. Her hands rarely leave her sides.

"My personality is not that of Dr. Melfi," says Bracco. "I'm a mover-shaker. I'm loud. I'm a ruckus. So I always had to really sit on everything. And that was hard." Most of the time, James Gandolfini (Tony) was her sole scene partner. "He was very serious," she remembers. "When he had all those long monologues, he would ask the camera crew to have enough film in it so he could do the entire scene without having to cut. ... He liked to work that way. He wanted the linear experience of the monologue."

Her memories of that time are so vivid, she says, that she doesn't feel the need to muddle or enhance them by joining the rest of us in a pandemic binge-watch. "You know what? Nothing will replace my experience in working with Jimmy Gandolfini," she says. "No film, no TV series. ... No song. Nothing."

Now about the house in Sicily: What happened was, she read a CNN article about the One Euro House Project, which is exactly what it sounds like, and she said (maybe to herself, but possibly aloud): "Oh, my God, this is incredible," and she spent the whole night looking at maps and sorting out logistics. What was she supposed to do? Not buy a house in Sicily? For a buck?

The next morning, it struck her that this was not just a great idea for her personally but also would be a great idea for HGTV. HGTV was game but with a caveat, perhaps one Bracco should have seen coming, given her situation — i.e., she is a beloved actress, adored in Italy where "Rizzoli and Isles" did huge numbers on Netflix — but she says took her by surprise.

"Well, I envisioned it as a TV show, but not really with me," she says, never really considering the possibility of being on a reality show. "I was just thinking, do I want to own a house in Sicily? And that was a very quick answer. I said, 'Yes, I do.'"

The task was daunting. "It was from scratch. There was nothing, there was no water, no electricity, no roof. The walls were caving in. No kitchen." The lower level that she dreamed of turning into a ping-pong room to entice her grandkids to visit looked, upon arrival, decrepit and possibly haunted.

But for audiences who spent much of the year cocooned inside apartments whose walls seemed to inch inward every day, the view of Bracco's townhouse-in-process was a welcome escape.

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