The Great Television Writers: Part 7 – David Chase

By Martin Keady · November 5, 2019

If the current “golden age” of television, which is fast becoming an entirely new age of “internet film and television” (all united by their dependence on a screen), has a starting point or an ur-text it is surely The Sopranos. January 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the first screening of The Sopranos on US television (January 1999) and the status and stature of the series only grows. It directly begat the two other members of 21st-century television’s holy trinity, The Wire and Mad Men, as David Simon was directly inspired to write The Wire for HBO by the success of The Sopranos, and one of the main writers of The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, was the creator of Mad Men. However, its influence extends beyond television into the whole of popular culture and in particular the representation of the Mafia in popular culture, in that The Sopranos is the third part of another holy trinity, ranking alongside The Godfather and GoodFellas as one of the three most authentic and artistic depictions of Italian-American criminal life. And its creator was David Chase.

Chase’s own name is evidence of the conflicted nature of many Italian-Americans and indeed of many Americans, regardless of their origin. Even before Chase was born in 1945 (just after the end of the Second World War), his father, an immigrant from Italy, had changed the family name from “DeChesare” to “Chase”, because, like so many other immigrants, he wanted to appear more “American”. He probably chose “Chase” as it was the closest English equivalent to “DeChesare”, but unwittingly he set David, his only child, on a life-long chase or pursuit of his own origins and identity. Ultimately, it culminated in The Sopranos. 

From the East Coast to the West Coast

Like so many great television writers and great screenwriters in general, Chase enjoyed a long but relatively undistinguished career before finally breaking big with The Sopranos. He initially attended university at Wake Forest in North Carolina, a college with a name that is so unusual and memorable that it is surprising that Chase did not use it as the name of the forest in one of the most famous episodes of The Sopranos. (Instead, with typical verisimilitude, he used the real name of the New Jersey forest in which the episode is set, Pine Barrens). However, he was afflicted with terrible depression and panic attacks (traits that he would eventually pass on to his greatest creation, mob boss Tony Soprano), and returned to his native New York to study film at New York University, before relocating to the West Coast to continue his studies at Stanford University’s film school. 

From Stanford, Chase found work not in the traditional studio “Hollywood” that earlier writers like Ben Hecht had flourished in but the burgeoning television industry that was fast rivaling the much older film industry. His progress was initially slow, as he found sporadic work as a writer on such forgotten shows as The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, before enjoying his first regular paycheck as a writer on another “colon” show (i.e. a show whose title is so long that it requires a colon), Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Kolchak was a Chicago newspaper reporter who specializes in reporting (and in the process solving) mysterious crimes committed by mysterious, even supernatural, figures. One of the many bastard children of The Twilight Zone, it is also often cited as an inspiration for The X-Files. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near as good as either The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. However, even though it was canceled after a single season (and was an even bigger flop when it was briefly relaunched in the noughties), it gave Chase his first steady work as a television writer.

Endings and Beginnings

After the demise of Kolchak, Chase eventually became a writer-producer on The Rockford Files, one of the most successful television series of the 1970s. James Garner played Jim Rockford, a private eye whose laconic, wise-cracking style was almost an update of the original and definitive LA private investigator, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or perhaps more precisely the Marlowe of Robert Altman’s The Last Goodbye (1973), which had transported Marlowe from pre-war Los Angeles to the hippy era, albeit without Altman’s (and Chandler’s) extraordinary cynicism. Chase wrote a total of 20 episodes over four years and in the process acquired enough ability, experience and sheer clout to make the transition from mere writer to writer-producer, which was to prove absolutely invaluable nearly two decades later when he was trying to tell and sell the story of The Sopranos.

After The Rockford Files finally ended in 1980, Chase continued to work as a writer or writer-producer on a succession of television series, including a new (and unsurprisingly short-lived) version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, before finally getting his own series (or at least one he had co-created, alongside another TV writer Lawrence Konner) commissioned at the end of the decade. Almost Grown was an intimate, deliberately small-scale drama about the life of an apparently average American couple, concentrating on three specific periods of their life together. It was well-reviewed but failed to find an audience and was canceled even before the end of its first series. No doubt Chase was chastened by this failure, but he soon recovered to become a writer-producer on an infinitely more successful show, Northern Exposure, the hit comedy-drama about a New York doctor who is forced to relocate to Alaska.

After leaving Northern Exposure after just a season, Chase, rather incredibly, returned to The Rockford Files, albeit a very different Rockford Files, one that was not a series but a succession of perhaps the most dreaded (and dreadful) format of all, “TV movies”. “TV Movies” were generally so bad that Jarvis Cocker of Pulp wrote a song about them, called simply “TV Movie”: sample lyric, “Without you, my life has become a hangover without end/A movie made for TV/Bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest”. Thus it was that by 1996 Chase was both a TV veteran and someone who had failed to make his mark on TV, and who in any case had always wanted to work in film.

Churchill and Chase, Both Men Who Changed the World

One of the many marvels of Darkest Hour, the recent Churchill biopic for which Gary Oldman deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor, was that it reminds modern audiences that Churchill was not always the immortal success story that he appears to be today. Far from it – in fact, as the film memorably recounts, up to the point that he became Prime Minister, Churchill had in fact been a failure, and not just once but repeatedly: as a soldier, in his youth, in the Boer War; as the First Lord of the Admiralty who had been directly responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli during World War One; and post-World War One as a politician who could not find a party that fitted him, as he flitted between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Fortunately for Winnie, and the world, the one time that he was a real success was the one time that it really mattered – when he saved Britain, and by extension the entire planet, from domination and destruction by the Nazis.

In a way, the same could be said of David Chase. Prior to creating and largely writing The Sopranos, his career had been commercially successful but artistically unfulfilling, and none of the shows that he worked on before The Sopranos (not even the extremely successful The Rockford Files) would be considered a classic today, or even one worthy of his now undoubted talents. However, just as Churchill was obviously saving himself for the ultimate battle against evil (or at least that is how history can now judge him), so Chase was obviously saving himself for The Sopranos, the show that invented modern television and became arguably the greatest television show ever made. 

The Godfather + Therapy = The Sopranos

As he later recalled in the introduction to a collection of some of the finest Sopranos scripts (Selected Scripts from Three Seasons), the origin of The Sopranos was a conversation that Chase had with a producer in 1996: “In 1996, Lloyd Braun, then an executive at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, asked me about a TV version of The Godfather. I wasn’t interested, but Lloyd’s suggestion reminded me of a movie idea I’d had years earlier – as luck would have it, during one of my own psychotherapy sessions – about a depressed mobster in therapy. That idea eventually became the first season of The Sopranos.”

Of course, Chase was not alone in having such an idea. Indeed, almost exactly the same idea was the basis of a Harold Ramis comedy movie, Analyze This (1999), in which Robert De Niro, the man who had played the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II (1974), played a mobster who goes to see a shrink. As word that this movie was being made filtered out, Chase was initially terrified that it would scupper his own TV series, which seemed so similar. However, HBO kept faith and eventually, it became obvious that The Sopranos and Analyze This, although superficially similar, were in fact completely different – one a meticulously observed drama based on real, lived experience and the other the broadest of broad comedies based ultimately on just an idea. It is proof that, as David Bowie memorably put it, “Originality is over-rated”, or more specifically that real originality lies as much in the execution, or depiction, of an idea as in the idea itself. This was the prevailing view of artistic inspiration for much of human existence (even William Shakespeare himself did not trouble himself with “inventing” plots and instead simply used existing ones, which he then imbued with his own genius) and the Golden Globe-winning and indeed globe-straddling success of The Sopranos, which was far greater than that of Analyze This and its sequel, Analyze That, is a useful reminder. 

The End of The Sopranos

So much has been written about The Sopranos that it scarcely seems necessary, or indeed possible, to add anything new. Nevertheless, I will try and I will begin at the end. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to The Sopranos, and to David Chase himself, was the tragic and tragically early death of its star, James Gandolfini, in 2013, when he was incredibly only 51 (meaning that he was only 37 when he began playing Tony Soprano, though he seemed decades, if not centuries, older). Although it was undeniably a tragedy for Gandolfini himself, and of course his family and friends (including Chase), it meant that there will never be any chance of The Sopranos ever being revived, reinvented or “rebooted” in any way. So many great television shows, such as This Life (an initially superb 1990s British TV drama about young legal professionals), have had their legacy sullied by such remakes or reboots that it is a genuine mercy that such a fate can never befall The Sopranos. (And if HBO thinks that they can get around Gandolfini’s death by making Tony’s misfit son, Anthony Junior, his successor, they are completely mistaken.)

So what we are left with are the original, and now surely the only, six series of The Sopranos, but that is more than enough. As Chase said, his initial idea about a mobster in therapy formed the basis of the first season, but soon he began drawing on almost all the elements of his life (particularly his early life in New York and New Jersey) to fashion all the future series. His own passive-aggressive mother became the model for Tony’s maddening and ultimately murderous mother, Lavinia; his own father, though no member of the Mafia, was the archetypal Italian-American who wanted to be purely “American” but then despaired of his son when he set out to follow his own “American dream” of becoming a film-maker; and soon it seemed as if almost every element of Chase’s life was being recycled, or rather transmogrified, into yet another fascinating, diamond-hard element of The Sopranos. 

Of course, Chase did not write every episode of The Sopranos; that would have been impossible, given that there were 86 in total. But he was the creator, the ultimate producer and the writer of 30 (or nearly a third) of all the episodes, including many of the finest episodes, which still stand out as almost stand-alone movies (and not TV movies). He obviously wrote the classic pilot, in which Tony’s lament about the declining fortunes of the Mafia (“Did you ever get into anything just as everyone else was getting out?”) not only drew viewers in but ultimately became almost a lament for all humanity at the end of the tortuous 20th century. He co-wrote “College”, in which Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to visit Ivy League schools and in the process uncovers a “rat” (or informer) and kills him. And if he didn’t actually write “Pine Barrens”, arguably the single greatest Sopranos episode (or The Soup Nazi of The Sopranos), then, as its writer, Terence Winter, fondly recalled years later, “he OK-ed it”, especially its ambivalent, even mysterious ending, in which “The Russian” who Paulie and Christopher are supposed to kill escapes into the woods. 

Don’t Stop Believin’ in the Mystery

In fact, Chase’s love of ambivalence and mystery extended to the very end of The Sopranos, and its actual finale, which has been debated almost endlessly since it was first screened. As Tony, his wife and children enjoy a rare moment of peace and harmony in a diner, even though it appears likely that Tony will finally be imprisoned because a trusted lieutenant has turned rat to save his drug-dealing son, a man at the counter (who may be a hitman) watches them, to the accompaniment of Journey’s soft-rock classic, “Don’t Stop Believin’”. And then it ends, abruptly, inconclusively, but utterly perfectly, and we, the viewer, can believe what we want: that Tony finally gets his comeuppance and is assassinated in front of his family (who may also be gunned down in the process); that he will survive and somehow escape justice; or simply that he goes to prison for life, but does so in the knowledge that his children, unlike those of the original Godfather Vito Corleone, are “out” of the family business and finally, truly legitimate. 

Post-Sopranos, David Chase is reported to be working on two major projects. Perhaps, unfortunately, one of them is a “Sopranos prequel”, The Many Saints of Newark, about the deadly Newark race riots of 1967. Far more promisingly, the other is A Ribbon Of Dreams, another series for HBO about the birth of Hollywood (the original Hollywood) in the early 20th century. The latter is a far more deserving subject for a man of David Chase’s talents, but even if he ends up making the prequel to The Sopranos, and even if it flops like Kolchak or Almost Grown, nothing can detract from the monumental achievement that is The Sopranos, the show that first showed what television was truly capable of. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

For all the latest from The Script Lab, be sure to follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Scripts from this Article