Kary Antholis:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why stories of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is part one of a two-part conversation with David Chase, Creator and Showrunner of The Sopranos, which is listed by Rolling Stone as The Greatest TV Show of all time.

In this first part of our chat, David talks about his earliest memories of storytelling; his family life growing up, particularly his relationship with his mother; the development of his view of the world and specifically morality and religion; his appreciation of gangster movies; and his path to becoming a professional storyteller leading up to The Sopranos, with a particular focus on the projects that he worked on that were related to crime.

And so with all that said, here is part one of my conversation with David Chase.

Kary Antholis:

What is the first memory you have of storytelling in your life?

David Chase:

My father in Mount Vernon, New York, probably around the age of four, sitting me down and telling me Rip van Winkle and also the Headless Horseman. Washington Irving stories.

Kary Antholis: 

Would that be a bedtime? 

David Chase: 

Bedtime. Or before bedtime, yeah.

Kary Antholis:

What do you remember of the impact of those stories on you?

David Chase: 

Oh, I was totally fascinated by them. And I loved being with my father and having him tell. I believe I was on his lap. 

Kary Antholis: 

What were other storytellers that had an impact on you in the way that they communicated story?

David Chase: 

Well, what I remember mostly is people in my family. I had a large extended family. And I just loved hearing, not fictional stories, I just loved hearing stories about things that happened and things that were outrageous or things that made them angry or made them happy. I loved those stories. I loved sitting around listening to them talk.

David Chase: 

The first stories I really remember, fictional stories I remember were not fictional. But my father and his business partner took me and his business partner’s son to the library in Clifton, New Jersey. I was probably six or seven. And I must’ve heard stories before that, but … and I remembered we took books out for the first time. And I took out Greek mythology. They had me.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me about your mother as a storyteller. Was she a storyteller?

David Chase: 

My mother was a storyteller. Her stories were mostly stories about rage and negativity. But she told a lot of stories.

My family was also, very divided. There were, there a schism, uh, in my father’s family. My grandmother had remarried, so half of my aunts and uncles were Chase children. DeCesare was really the name. And half of them were Fusco children. They were, kinda separated. I never met my grandmother till I was about five.

David Chase: 

So my Uncle David got married to my Aunt Mary when I was about six or seven. And I remember sitting at the table with my Uncle Tommy and my Uncle David and they said, just to, you know, just, they said, “Tomorrow, we ride at dawn.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And it just blew my mind, that whole idea, that (laughs) tomorrow they were gonna ride  at dawn. I loved it, just that thought, you know? Just picturing it. I thought they were serious.

Kary Antholis: 

Your friends growing up, would you regale each other with stories? Would you, would you, um, share gossip or family stories with them?

David Chase:

Oh, yeah. We shared, we shared gossip. And we shared kind of bullshit stories. I do remember, my father’s business partner’s son, Bobby Casselli, we were in Newark, New Jersey and Ricky Nelson had a hit out at the time called Traveling Man. And I told Bobby Casselli that I wrote that song (laughing) and he believed me. I don’t know.

Kary Antholis: 

Let’s talk about the development of your view of the world. Like, your view of right and wrong. Did you go to church as a kid?

David Chase: 

I did.

Kary Antholis: 

And what did you make of that? The religious experience, of the morality? And what was your parents’ relationship with all of that?

David Chase: 

I was very impressed with churchgoing, with the theatrical nature of it. I guess I believed a lot of the spooky stories I was told, but the thing about my parents is my father was a self-proclaimed agnostic. My mother was Protestant and my father had been raised in a Protestant church.

David Chase: 

Now, Italians are not Protestants,There is a, there is a group of people called the Weldensians, who came down from Germany, I think in the 1800s or 1700s. Baptists, really. To Naples. I don’t know why. And, uh, my family got involved with them. They had been Catholics, and they became involved with these Waldensians, so they became Baptists.

David Chase: 

That was my father’s family. And I guess there were some people like that in Newark, New Jersey. My mother’s father was a socialist. He didn’t care where his children, he didn’t care where or if they went to church.

David Chase: 

So all my aunts and everything, there were 10 of them, all my aunts and uncles as kids had friends or went to youth groups or whatever, um, most of them found … They were living in Newark, New Jersey and in an Italian, found Catholic. Went to the Catholic church.

David Chase: 

My mother somehow got involved with this church in Newark that was a Baptist, Italian Baptist church and in that Italian Baptist church was my father who was living in Newark at that time as kid. He later on moved to Westchester County and I think that’s where they met. So we had kind of a strange religious household.

Kary Antholis: 

how frequently would they take you to church?

David Chase: 

They didn’t take me to church. They sent me to Sunday School.

Kary Antholis:

how long did you do that?

David Chase:

They sent me to a place called … in fact, we just shot across the street from there. Brookdale Baptist Church, to Sunday School. And I was taught there that God hated the Jews, because they killed Christ, and that’s why you notice that Jews always wear glasses and have orthopedic shoes.

David Chase: 

Now, at that time (laughs) you know old Jews who ran candy stores had those orthopedic shoes. So that’s what they told me. They also told me that God didn’t like Catholics because they drank during their services. They drank the wine. I told my parents that and surprisingly enough as I look back on it, they pulled me out of there.

Kary Antholis: 

Wow. how long had you been going when they-

David Chase: 

A year.

Kary Antholis: 

A year?

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

you’ve spoken at length about your mom and her impact on you and-

David Chase: 

Well, I’ll just say something about that. The influence that my mom, who I said was a model for Livia Soprano and she was. In the pilot, a lot of Livia’s dialogue was my mother’s dialogue. I said a lot about depression, because, one of the first thing that happened was the Times did an article on me about the Sopranos. A woman named Alex Witchel.

David Chase: 

And because I wanted to sell the show, I said a lot more about depression and my mother and all than really existed. Actually, I had a very happy childhood. I was scared a lot of the time and anxious a lot of the time ’cause that’s the way my mother was and she was a terrified person and she told me a lot of scary things about the world.

David Chase: 

So I’m sorry to say that my view of the world … I guess like most people who come from a nuclear family, uh, their first, their view of the world comes from their parents and that was my situation. They, my, they- they- they set my view of the world.

David Chase: 

What was strange though, was that when I was about five, maybe even older, maybe eight, my view of the world was that it was all an illusion. Everything I was seeing and hearing was an illusion. It wasn’t the way the world was and if I turned my head, they, whoever they were, would run behind, would run around with a new set for me to look at. And if I turned it over this way, they would quickly hustle over there with a new set for me to look at. Because if I, if I saw the way the world really was, I would destroy it. I don’t know what that means.

Kary Antholis:

Fascinating It’s very cinematic. 

David Chase:

It is cinematic. Yeah. It is cinematic. True.

Kary Antholis: 

I’ve read and heard you say that you initially went to film school because you were interested in the visual aspects of —

David Chase:

Yeah, I wanted to be a D/P.

Kary Antholis: 

Yeah. When do you remember beginning to kind of be influenced by other thinkers, by your reading, differentiating your worldview from the worldview your parents gave you?

David Chase: 

Well, it must’ve been that night that I read Greek mythology, right? That’s probably when it started. That certainly was not my parents’ view of the world. But I found it fascinating. Um, It started then and then, you know, I read books. I read kids books.

Kary Antholis: 

Right.

David Chase: 

I read the Hardy Boys and I read Johnny Tremaine. Um-

Kary Antholis:

Music is storytelling, of course, as well. And I understand music was a very important —

David Chase: 

It had a tremendous impact. Well, it didn’t really have an impact until the first thing I remember was being on a swing somewhere and hearing, Paul Anka’s Diana. We didn’t have a radio in the house. Oh, we did have a radio but nobody ever used it. It never played. We were very late to get TV too. But I was on this swing and I heard Diana and I thought, “Wow, that’s a great whatever it is.”

David Chase: 

And then I started to get it. My older girl cousins and my, this older boy cousin, Johnny Spazado, they were already into that stuff. So they started telling me about Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and I started listening to all that at the age of probably eight or nine.

David Chase: 

And I liked all that stuff. But I didn’t really get into music as a participant until I was about 14, 15. I fell in with a group of people who were, two of them especially, were musicians. One of them, this guy, Donnie Waugh, was an excellent guitar player, um, rock and roller and a drummer. And this other guy, Peter McKei, was younger than me and younger than him but was sort of an acolyte of his. And I became friends with them for other reasons. But because I was friends with them, I started taking drum lessons.

David Chase: 

Before this had happened, I must’ve been, I don’t know, 11 or so, we were riding in a car. My whole family, and my cousin Johnny and there was song on the radio and I started clapping in time to it. And my cousin Johnny said to my mother, Aunt Norma, “He should be starting the drum. He’s got a natural sense of rhythm.” And she said, “Over my dead body. That Gene Krupa was a drug addict.”

David Chase: 

So three years later, I wanted to do it and I did, you know, we did it. And then I, you know, and I got into it. So at that point in high school, you know, we were into pop music and rock and roll, but we really got interested in jazz also, modern jazz.

David Chase:

And I took lessons, um, and I got to the point where I was doing what are called “independents”. Independents is when every limb is doing something different. It’s not easy, but it’s so cool and so much fun, if you master it.

David Chase: 

It’s a jazz thing. So I got to that point. And we were sort of into- into jazz and into blues, Ray Charles, particularly. And then I went to freshman year in college. The Beatles happened and that was the end of everything.

David Chase: 

We had kind of stopped playing music because we got driver’s licenses and the whole world became about driving and girls and all that. But once the Beatles hit, my friends brought their guitars out of the closet and everybody started playing. And after that, I was really interested in nothing else.

Kary Antholis: 

You just talked about playing jazz and it sounded like it was more kind of sonic quality, the way it made you feel.

David Chase: 

Yeah. Rhythm. Rhythm, especially, yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

was there a point where you remember keying in on lyrics in songs? 

David Chase:

Well, I always did. 

David Chase: 

And, uh, I mean, I always was good at picking up on lyrics. Like there was a song called Tall Paul. This is just occurring to me now. I haven’t thought about it since then. (singing) Was Annette Funicello, I think. I was just always keyed in lyrically. Uh, and then once … Well, once I heard Bob Dylan, though, that was that.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me about that.

David Chase:

Well, I went to college in North Carolina and listened to Ray Charles all the time. Well, I listened to those, yeah, I listened to those lyrics too. Yeah. Um, I just listened to the music. I wasn’t thinking about the difference between music and lyrics.

David Chase: 

I went to my freshman year at Wake Forest College, which at that time was not a university. It was a Baptist college. No card-playing on campus. No dancing. Obviously, no drinking. Racist fraternities, the Kappa Alphas and all that. And I hated it down there.

David Chase: 

And I remember one time being in the suite. and I was playing a Ray Charles record, and these two maids were cleaning up and one said to the other, “That’s Ray Charles.” And I felt so proud, so happy.

David Chase: 

And then there was a- a guy who was in the suite, my suitemate, a guy named Dave Gilman, from Connecticut. Just talked about Bob Dylan. I said, “So what’s that?” He said, “You never heard Bob Dylan?” This is like 1964, ’63. Um, I said, “No,” and he played it or me and, you know, that, it was, I was besotted.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me a little bit more about that, about those early days with the Dylan music and where it took your brain, where it took your imagination.

David Chase: I don’t know whether I knew this then or now looking back on it. But pop music, Chuck Berry and all that, that was all great. Little Richard, all that stuff was great. The Beach Boys, car songs. I loved car songs, you know. I had this crappy 409 for a while. Um, but it was all well and good, and I loved it. Then, as I think about it now, starting to listen to Ray Charles, you were starting to hear songs about other issues. Death, betrayal, broken heart, blindness, depression, and like with- with everybody, it struck a big chord with me. And so I went from Ray Charles to country blues and Chicago blues, more of the same.

David Chase: 

And then as the Stones and the Beatles — it took the Beatles longer, I think. But as the Stones hit, um, I began to hear that same stuff in rock and roll music. Then with Dylan, it was like, “Oh, my god. This is art.” This is about really important stuff. This is an art form. The Rolling Stones are artists. Um, the Beatles, obviously, are artists and it all came together for me.

Kary Antholis: 

Did your experience with music open up this sense, for you of the possibilities of being an artist?

David Chase: 

Yes, yes. That’s where I was at. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band.

Kary Antholis: 

Did it also open up the idea of filmmaking as an alternative art form?

David Chase: 

No.

Kary Antholis: 

No?

David Chase: 

Didn’t. No, it didn’t. I had started thinking about writing. I went to summer camp when I was 14. I got punished and I was sent to the summer camp to work as a dishwasher. And I had a great time. (laughs) I had a wonderful summer. I had my first girlfriend, Jewish girl from Long Island. She was so much more advanced than I was. It was great.

David Chase: 

And I remember reading on the road up there, actually, and I started to think maybe I could be a writer. So I decided to write a novel when I got home. And I got home and I sat down. I didn’t think of what it was gonna to be about. It was gonna be about this guy named Joe Bass, who was the head, who was the cook at the camp and his very pretty daughter, Claudia Bass.

David Chase: 

I started to write it. I had no idea that you needed a structure or a story  and I think some people do right now when they just start writing. Well, I got three pages in and that was, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing. So I didn’t think about it much.

David Chase: 

But alongside this was, that was happening, I was getting interested in the World Book Encyclopedia, their chapter on art and I don’t think I connected the two. I knew that that was art. I wasn’t sure about rock and roll. So even earlier, I was looking at, you know, all the great works of art were there in color. I would go back to that over and over again and read it.

David Chase: 

But I didn’t think of … and we went to the movies all the time, every Saturday. My father took me to the movies most Tuesday nights. And I was crazy about movies, crazy about them.

Kary Antholis: 

When you say your father took you to the movies, would he go to the movies with you?

David Chase: 

Yeah. On Tuesday nights. I don’t know what that was about, but I remember seeing Ten Tall Men with him and, Vera Cruz, Westerns mostly. And I was really crazy about movies and I continued going to the movies the whole time. But I wasn’t an expert in movies. I didn’t know who made them. I didn’t compare them, really.

David Chase: 

Well, I went to school at Wake Forest and it’s this conservative school in North Carolina. And for some reason, on Friday nights, there was a foreign film night. I don’t know who started it. You never would’ve expected it to be there. And I saw Godard for the first time, Fellini, everybody. And that just, you know, that was extremely moving to me.

David Chase: 

I had seen Fellini once before in Asbury Park. A friend of mine and I went to see, um, Boccaccio ’70 with, I think it was De Sica. I forget who else. The other two, I didn’t understand it and they didn’t. I was, think, 14 years old.

David Chase: 

Fellini, it just … Well, first of all, it was like looking at my family. The delusional thing, saints and operatic behavior. I thought, “Oh, my god, that’s where we come from.” And I just loved it. I jusI loved the pictures. I loved the big billboard of the woman, Bevete Piu Latte, Drink More Milk, I guess it was Anita Ekberg or somebody like that.

Kary Antholis: 

Was Italian spoken in your family?

David Chase: 

Yes. My grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side never spoke English.

Kary Antholis: 

And so you, did you have a proficiency understanding it? No?

David Chase: 

No. My parents spoke English and only spoke Italian, usually when they didn’t want me to know — 

Kary Antholis: 

Got it

David Chase:

My grandmother on my father’s side spoke English but never read or wrote in either language. She didn’t know how to read or write.

Kary Antholis: 

So when you went to a Fellini film, for example, you didn’t understand the language, but you understand, you understood the people. And you just —

David Chase:

Yes, I did. Well, uh, you know, subtitles, too. I understood it.

Kary Antholis: 

Right. Yeah.

David Chase:

Yeah. Kind of a hysteria. It was about a woman. (laughs) I don’t know, a professor who was obsessed with this beautiful figure and his sister is appealing to the saints. It’s like, this is home.

Kary Antholis: 

Um, and, um, and you went from Wake Forest to NYU? Is that right?

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

What did you end up studying at NYU?

David Chase: 

I went to this film program every night at Wake Forest. And at the same time, and I don’t know how this happened, I saw other, I saw, uh, Strangelove and I knew I was seeing something totally, totally different and above everything else I had seen.

David Chase: 

As funny as it was, I only went to see it because it was funny. But I was terrified of the atom bomb. My mother was always scared so I was always frightened by the atom bomb. So I went to see it for those reasons.

David Chase: 

And I knew, you know, I just, I can think of it now, the detail on the switches and the ICM 114 discriminator. And the lighting, the black and white lighting, what it was like when the fire started onboard. I went, “This is something else. This is totally different.” I was very smitten by all that.

David Chase:

I got a still camera because I wanted to get into photography, because I was wanting to become a D/P or… And I started taking pictures of shots on the screen. Of Kubrick movies. And I don’t know what I did. I just would just take a picture of it and put them on my wall, of black and white movies. And what, uh-

David Chase: 

And put them on my wall, a black and white movies. 8 1/2 was one of them. Um, I was starting to just get into it that way. I became fascinated, like with music and rock ‘n’ roll, half the thing is about the technology, right? The guitar itself, the drums itself, what kind you have, what size cymbals, da-da-da. You know, I think that’s a boy thing, and so there was so much technology with movies that, you know, it fascinated me.

David Chase:

Then my sophmore year, I went to see Cul de Sac. A movie about gangsters, which already had interested me, invading this house on the coast of England, places I had never seen and couldn’t believe that whole thing about the tides coming in. And I walked out of there and I thought, it was the first time I thought, “God, somebody made that. It wasn’t made by a factory out in Hollywood like a car is made in Detroit. Somebody made that movie, Roman Polanski. Huh. I wonder if I could do that?” And that’s when I really caught on and, and I sort of started to move away from music and into that.

Kary Antholis: 

Um, you speak, you, you spoke about the fear that your mother kind of inculcated into you as a boy and also some of the mysticism and craziness that you experienced at these family gatherings. And it’s interesting to hear you talk a bit about how your fascination with movies had to do with their ability to tap into some of those fears and ideas that you experienced-

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis:

When you were a kid, was crime and criminality part of the web of fear that your mother had?

David Chase: 

No. My parents would talk about people in, mostly in Italian, somebody they knew who was connected with, you know, somebody. The Boriardo family, they were called, ruled, Essex County. And they came from the same neighborhood as my mother, and that’s who The Sopranos is based on. But they would talk about the Boriardos. Like one time my, my aunt Mary went to a wedding celebration and there was a champagne fountain. Everybody was talking about that. And my mother, oof… I had one cousin, cousin Joe by marriage, who was connected, was a wise guy.

David Chase: 

But I didn’t know that then. But, my mother didn’t make me afraid of it, she just made me fascinated with it. And my father and I used to … the other thing that was big, was my father and I every Thursday night watched The Untouchables. And Robert Stack and The Untouchables themselves were not that interesting at all. The interesting people were the gangsters… Frankie Yale and Longie Zwillman, and my father knew all those — OF those people — and explained some stuff to me.

David Chase:

But before that, now that I think about it, I had seen Public Enemy. And Public Enemy … because Public Enemy scared the shit out of me. When he comes home wrapped in those rags, like a mummy, and his mother opens the door, and he topples forward … I couldn’t sleep that night.

Kary Antholis: 

Why do you think that was? What, what was it about that?

David Chase:

Mmm, I don’t know. Well, what it was, was, they get a phone call. “Tommy’s coming home.” Because he was in a hospital, from being shot. They get a phone call, his brother says, “Mom, Tom’s coming home!” She gets all happy, and do’s the “Tommy’s coming home! Tommy’s coming home!” And she’s upstairs plumping the pillows and singing. And the doorbell rings. And his cadaver topples into the house, which I think is the last shot. Well, the change-up in mood from that, that you’re lift- you’re made to expect something happy is going to happen, and then something horrible happens, was just very powerful to me.

Kary Antholis: 

It’s interesting that balance of kind of empathy that you have for the mom, as she’s waiting for her kid to come home. And then, the harsh reality of —

David Chase:

It’s horror when he comes home.

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Kary Antholis: 

Let’s segway over to um, your transition into film school. You went to NYU for a while…

David Chase: 

I went to NYU Uptown. There was an NYU Uptown campus then.

Kary Antholis: 

Did you transfer from Wake Forest?

David Chase:

I transferred from Wake Forest. My, uh, my father wouldn’t let me g-, he was paying for it, and he wouldn’t let me go to, downtown to the Village, because he said there were too many Jews there. And of course, he sent me to The Bronx.

Kary Antholis: 

And, and what did you study at NYU?

David Chase: 

English Literature.

Kary Antholis: 

Was there a particular area of English Literature that you focused on, or that you were interested in?

David Chase:

American Literature.

Kary Antholis: 

And who were the writers that

David Chase: 

Poe, Hawthorne, Melville …

David Chase: 

19th Century. I had studied Victorian Literature at Wake Forest.

Kary Antholis:

Where did the idea to go to Stanford and to film school come from?

David Chase: 

Well, I got more and more involved with film and was going into New York all the time to the Waverly, to see, The Wages of Fear, and incredible stuff. I bought a movie camera, which… I’d like to say I tried to make short films, but … I just I had no clue as to what was going on. Even though I was watching movies. But I was very proud of that camera, it was a Super 8 because the fact of it was that it had, you could crank it back, and you could do dissolves and fades on the camera. Which is what knocked me out.

David Chase: 

I took this class at the School of Visual Arts at night. Um, but I didn’t like it, because, we, there was probably about 12 students in the class. And we all wrote a short film. And then we were all going to work on that short film. Mine didn’t get picked, and I was annoyed at that. I thought the one that got picked was silly. But mine was way too ambitious, anyway. But I went there. And the guy who taught it was an advertising director. And I did a couple of jobs for him, multi-media things at the Ambassador Hotel. You know, just driving, PA stuff.

David Chase: 

I decided that I wanted to go to film school. I was getting married at the same time. And all my relatives told me that it was very important for me to get out of the State, because my mother was going to, it was going to be a destructive thing on my marriage. I was always worried about what she was going to think, and I did everything she said. And so my uncles and people said, you know, “You need to leave here, or your marriage isn’t going to last.” And California was kind of cool in those days. This is right around the time of Buffalo Springfield and all that.

David Chase:

SoI applied to film school. I applied to Stanford, NYU, USC and that was it. And I don’t think I even finished applying to NYU, because we had to get out. Um, and I applied to UCLA and USC. I got rejected at UCLA. Uh, and we drove out there, and we got to USC, and talked to the Head or the Dean there, or something. And he said, “Oh! It’s too bad, you’re two days late. If you’d been here two days earlier, we would have accepted you, and you’d be in class right now.” 

So I was very disappointed. We were going to go up north to see my aunt, who lived in Los Gatos. Stanford accepted me, and gave me a Fellowship. So that clinched it. But Stanford was basically a documentary program. Although I was allowed to make narrative films. But I didn’t learn anything about narrative films.

Kary Antholis: 

What’d you get out of your experience at Stanford?

David Chase: 

Well I saw a lot of movies. Antonioni, more Godard, Truffault

Kary Antholis: 

This would have been before the, kind of, American wave of filmmakers. You would have been … are you a contemporary of Scorsese’s and Coppola’s?

David Chase: 

Probably two or three years younger.

David Chase: 

Basically a contemporary, I guess. But that started happening right around then.

Kary Antholis: 

That era of Lucas and Spielberg, they were probably at USC, at that time.

David Chase:

Yeah, they were probably, three or four y- I remember seeing THX, which was already kind of happening and, that was a guy who’d been to film school, and now was making films.

David Chase: 

So he was kind of an, an example. But that film was probably two or three years old.

Kary Antholis: 

I’d like to just spend a little bit of time talking about four experiences. Your work on Night Stalker, your work on Rockford Files, obviously, a film that you wrote about women criminals, I think it was in New Jersey, and then Minnesota Strip. Because they all have elements of crime and criminality in them. Although, Night Stalker’s more a horror genre piece. But they all have transgression and consequences and tone. Can you talk about the way that each of those experiences shaped your storytelling chops?

David Chase: 

I always loved horror films. Uh, as a kid in Clifton, as I said, I used to go every Saturday, and my cousin Alberta, Bertie, she was like a year older than me, but she was like a tomboy. She was like one of my best friends. They lived in Westchester, and I used to spend two weeks every year at their house. That’s where I started smoking, she was older, her sister was older. So we went to see a movie called Creature with the Atom Brain. And, it was so scary to me, that night I just completely had a freak out. And it caused her to freak out. And my Uncle Albert had to come from Westchester to pick her up and take her home. But I still could not stop looking at those movies. So that was part of my, that was certainly a part of my … what do you want to call it? Expression?

David Chase:

Night Stalker, which is I guess the first of the things you mentioned, had been a TV movie. With Darren McGavin as Kolchak, the investigative reporter who finds vampires in Las Vegas. Kind of a high concept idea at that time. Very good. A night time city, with all these showgirls. And then they decided to make a series out of it, and I had not been able to get work at all. I had done a story for a show called The Lawyers, and, not good. But I had to join the Guild, and on the picket line, I met a guy named Paul Playdon, who was about to take over th- what they called the back nine, of 22 shows, of a show called The Magician with Bill Bixby.

David Chase: 

And, we had a good time, we laughed all the time. He brought me onto that show as a staff writer. That was my first real job. I had written, I had done a couple of things for Gene Corman, other stuff, but it didn’t really stick. And he brought me on to that show as a staff writer and then when that was over, he got the job as producer of this series they were going to make, of The Night Stalker. And so he brought me on as story editor. He was the producer, I was the story editor. Um, and I was crazy about it, because I thought, “Oh, this is going to be really scary.” But Darren McGavin was kind of nuts. His casting for the people in the office, they were kind of foolish characters. Um, and it was kind of silly. It was funny. Funnier than the network wanted, funnier than anybody wanted. He couldn’t agree with my friend Paul. And he fired him or Paul quit.

David Chase:

But I was left there. And my natural inclination is, I think it all comes from Strange Love. My natural inclination is to write stuff that’s like horrible and funny at the same time. And so, that’s what I started to do, and McGavin kind of liked my writing. And among the other things that I did was fire Bob Zemeckis and I rewrote one of the scripts that he and his partner did. Then I later wished I hadn’t, didn’t know who he was. But I really had a good time doing it.

Kary Antholis: 

Did the combination of horror, and humor, did it have any roots in your youth? Was there gallows humor, or morbid humor in your world? Did your parents or your mom or your dad or anybody in your world have that?

David Chase: 

My mother sort of had a warped sense of humor. But what happened was, when I met these friends of mine from high school, bunch of guys who hung out together. We were very into drinking, early, into pot early, and then acid. We had this strange kind of private humor between us. We would do this thing, my friend and I had this thing called “Meaningless Carloads.” Just imagine, four people in a car, who had nothing to do with each other, that could make you laugh. And it was kind of like Saturday Night Live.

David Chase: 

And we did all that, and we used to do, it was called “Meaningless Humor.” Like you’d draw a drum set and you’d put (laughs) uh, Kary Antholis on the front, like Kary Antholis was the drummer. And for some reason, that used to drive us crazy with laughter. Um, because you knew that Kary Antholis was not a drummer. We did “Meaningless Record Labels,” like, the company was phony, it was a fake, funny name. I remember there was one song called Ted’s Favorite Soup, about a guy named w-, it was in the high school, by another fake name. And we used to laugh our asses off at that. So, I brought that with me, I’m sure.

Kary Antholis: (00:55:21)

Got it …

David Chase: (00:55:23)

And so as The Night Stalker became crazier and stupider, and the fighting about it went on and on, I just sat in my room and started writing these funny, character-orientated Night Stalkers.

Kary Antholis: 

Got it.

David Chase:

Because it was the same story every time. He finds a Night- he finds a monster, nobody believes him… It was great, I actually had a lot of fun.

Kary Antholis: 

It was interesting to hear about the development of that aspect of your craft, introducing elements of your own personality and storytelling instincts, into what would have otherwise been a genre piece.

David Chase: 

That’s true. And I think it was partly because Darren, who tried to have us all fired, I think it was because Darren, Darren’s humor and mine was not the same. For him, it wasn’t straight on horror. So, he put up with me. I think that’s why I got away with it.

David Chase: 

I would say this. I would say there was nobody in TV, this sounds very self-aggrandizing but, there was nobody in network television, that was writing that stuff at that time, except for me. But nobody even knew it, because the show was a failure.

Kary Antholis: 

I remember watching it as a kid, as a teenager, and …

David Chase: 

It frightened younger kids, right?

Kary Antholis: 

I was a little bit older … and realizing, there’s something else going on here …

David Chase: 

(laughs)

Kary Antholis: 

… this was not like … I’m not a guy who’s attracted to horror. But I watched that, because I thought it was funny. I don’t know when I picked it up, I don’t know when I got into it. I was like, “This is, like, zany. This is not … “

David Chase:

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

” … horror.”

David Chase: 

Yeah. Yeah. I remember we did a show which, there was this kind of psychiatry at that time called “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” … What was that called? Anyway. And I brought that into the show that McGavin had a big argument with the cop, saying “You’re (laughs) okay, and I’m not okay, and you’re … ” It had a contemporary, very contemporary feel to it. It was sort of hip. And I don’t think anything else going on there was. This was before Saturday Night Live.

Kary Antholis: 

Rockford was before that?

David Chase: 

No, it’s after. Rockford was after that. So I had a seven year deal at the- at Universal Studios. And uh, that show didn’t even go 22 episodes. I was in the middle of writing the 20th episode when they canceled it. And the 20th episode was going to take place on Stage 12, which was the original Phantom of the Opera stage. I was so excited. And then they canceled it. So then I did, I went on some Glen Larsen shows, terrible stuff.About two years after that, um, they were looking for a new producer, to work with Steve Cannell and Meta Rosenberg on The Rockford Files, and I got the job. And I was pretty young for that job. That was tremendously, uh, influential, and I learned a lot.

David Chase: 

You know, Cannell was a great lover of detective fiction. And I happened to like detective stories, too. So, and there was no Writer’s Room at that time. There was me, Steve Cannell, and a woman named Juanita Barlett. And we used to have to hire, by Guild rules, a certain number of people called outside writers. So we would have them come in, and normally we would wind up re-writing all that stuff. Well, you learn the most, I think, by re-writing.

David Chase: 

I think I really learned story. We actually sat down, and plotted story. Um, that was not the case with uh, Night Stalker. It was, and, a monster, and, you know. Although I worked with Michael Kozoll on that show, who created, later on went on to create Hill Street Blues, with Steven Bochco. And we were constantly laughing all the time about it, because it was so ridiculous. But we never really plotted story. It was the same story every week. But with Rockford Files, the plot had to work. And Steven was really good at it.

David Chase:

But! He told me, that Paul Playdon, the guy who had first hired me to work on the Bill Bixby show, who was also very young, he said, “That guy had the best story head of anybody I’ve ever known.” Because he had been the story editor on Mission Impossible, which is very complicated storytelling, right? Um, people are pretending to be what they’re not. He said, he remembered going in to pitching a story to Paul, and Paul looked at it, and he said, “He kind of threw it up in the air.” And it all — I don’t mean physically — and it all came down, all the plot points came down in a different order that made it work like a charm. And I learned some of that from Paul, too.

David Chase: 

You had to know what were the heavies doing. While you were following Rockford, the heavies could not be static. They had to be working on their own thing, which would then again, um, cross paths with Rockford. Instead of the heavies doing the same thing every time, he reached somebody had to fight, even though it kind of came out that way. There were two stories going. The story with the heavies, quote unquote, and Rockford’s story.

Kary Antholis:

What characterized a good heavy?

David Chase:

Something else he told was, he felt that psychotics were not a worthy adversary. It’s too easy. And I, I believe that. So the crazy people, and maniacs, we didn’t have any of that on the show. A good heavy had to be smart, (phew) … usually self-deluded, and interesting as a character, except they wouldn’t be able to stand by themselves, as a character.

Kary Antholis: 

This just occurred to me, but do you think that your training and writing the heavies on Rockford helped you in crafting The Sopranos?

David Chase: 

Absolutely. No doubt about it. While I was on, while I was on Rockford, I did an episode called The Man Who Saw The Alligators. It was about a low level mobster who gets out of prison. And he comes down to LA to get revenge. I forget. On the people who had sent him to prison? And he had this mother, an Italian mother, who was willing, for her own sake, to collaborate with the people who were trying to get him.

Kary Antholis:

Wow. Were you conscious of that when you, um, wrote what was initially a screenplay for The Sopranos? Were you, were you, did you remember having crafted that character?

David Chase:

I did remember it. But it wasn’t like Livia, really. It, in a sense I guess it was. But I was totally involved with Livia, and the idea of my mother, you know.

Kary Antholis:

When you crafted the story for Rockford, were you aware of your mother in crafting that mother character?

David Chase:

I must have been. I, I think I was. But I don’t think I thought it was, anything was patterned on my mother. I think what I thought was just kind of, very Italian-American, kind of operatic, people getting all crazy and hysterical. I remember a line from it, because they were, (laughs), she put out this buffet, this buffet of food. And the guy, George Loros, the killer, said-

David Chase: 

There was food, talking about, and the guy went, “Food, food. This family is just one big digestive tract.” Um, you know, we had a lot of food on the Sopranos, too, and yeah.

David Chase:

I really did learn, just really perfected writing there. Jim was a great guy to, great guy to write for. And you got into his rhythms, again, taught you how to copy somebody. Not to mention that they were really very elegant stand up people. There was no show biz crap.

Kary Antholis: 

Talk a little bit about place and time in The Rockford Files.

David Chase

I did this Glen Larson show. After the Night Stalker, called Switch. And I went back to work with Paul Playdon on that show. And I’m very proud of that show, even though nobody ever saw it. Because it was about a bunco cop and a con man who joined forces to have a detective agency. And it was uh, Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner. And so they would foist a con. Because this was like in the time of The Sting and all that. So they would foist a con on a bad guy for good reasons. And I came up with a story in which a private detective, like Sam Spade, had screwed somebody up and had hidden some money. So they sent their people in there, and we did like an upside down version of Maltese Falcon. This beautiful woman comes into his office. Uh, they, they, they make this kind of nefarious union together. And then she gets him to confess that he had killed the guy that they went in there for.

Then we did another one, which we never shot about a sheriff who was in league with some meth dealers. They had a meth plant somewhere in town. Their con people went in there as UFO searches and stuff. And secret Air Force officials. Because they knew that they wouldn’t want anybody to get near where the meth plant was. One of the things about con, real cons in real life and stories is, they make you try to punch your holes in their story. Like Robert Wagner came into town being an Air Force guy who denied he was an Air Force guy. So the sheriff, instead of just being told, “I’m from the Air Force, and we believe something is going to land here,” the sheriff would say, “Who is that fucking guy?” And he’d investigate, and he’d find out he was from the Air Force. That only convinces me that there’s something going on here, right?

David Chase: 

So we did that one and, and we narrowed the geography down to this part of town where it might happen. And the sheriff’s just like, “No, no, that’s not where they’re going to land. No.” And that was where the meth plant was. It was, it was really a lot of fun, thinking that way. But halfway through the network said, “No more cons. Just go back to general detective show.”

David Chase:

So I did that show. And then I had nothing to do but I was still, um, on the line. I had a seven year deal. And they asked me to do The Rockford Files, which I had never seen. I was not a fan. So they show me three episodes and I thought, it was the ’70s. And I thought, “This show is amazing. I really believe that we’re in Los Angeles. I believe the time. This is the, it’s the ’70s, it’s now. And it’s in Los Angeles. It’s got all the trademarks of Los Angeles. The people are like Angelenos. The stuff going on is very contemporary. I believe that this show exists in Los Angeles, not just in its time slot.”

Kary Antholis: 

What’s your memory of your bringing that kind of idiosyncratic sense of humor, offbeat twist, that you brought to Night Stalker, for example. Were you able to bring that to what Cannell was doing?

David Chase: 

I think they valued me for that. It was twisted to begin with. Rockford Files had its own twistedness. The first episode that I pitched to them, it was a murder. Rockford is awakened one day in his trailer. And there’s something going on out on the beach.

David Chase: 

And so we had this character who was a psychic, who we discover actually was following Rockford around, as Rockford was trying to discover clues. And when Rockford discovered the clues, psychic would know it and he’d do a press conference. And um, so that was kind of offbeat. And they loved that show. And I just, you know, that was, you know, I was doing all kinds of things. 

Kary Antholis: 

You talk about an unproduced script that you wrote which was inspired by a book by an academic about the rise in property crimes by women, as iconic of the advance of feminism.

David Chase: 

Right. In the early ’80s, there was a woman sociologist at Rutgers who wrote a book or a paper positing the idea that since there were violent crimes and crimes against property being committed by women more and more often, this proved that the feminist movement was having an effect. Which is a stupid thing. And there was a woman that, Anne Biondi, a woman at Universal, a really good kind of low level, executive, who told me about that and pitched me for the idea, and I, I got to write it.

David Chase: 

Female Suspects.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me a little bit about it. About that story and about creating that world.

David Chase:

Well, it concerned a professor at the University of New Jersey who had this idea that female offenders, as she called them, proved the success of feminism. And she’d go around and she would interview these people. And collate all this information. But she had a larcenous, dishonest personality. She used university money to fly herself and her boyfriend down to the Super Bowl. Or her grant money, that’s what it was. And she got fired for that. And so then she went back to some of the women that she had interviewed and joined forces with them and teamed up with them and they began robbing houses. (laughs)

Kary Antholis: 

(laughs)

David Chase: 

And she became, a, you know, a crook.

David Chase: 

That, that, as I recall it, I don’t think they had a blacklist in those days — the best unproduced scripts. But that script was very hot for a long time. And what influenced me about it was, I went to see Raging Bull. And it was supposed to be a comedy, and so I went to see Raging Bull with my wife. And I said, “That’s the tone that the movie should have.” And so when she turned, when Anne turned it into Tom Mount, who was the head of Universal at that time, he said, he said, “Documentary doesn’t win at the box office.” So it never got produced.

Kary Antholis: ]

I’d love to read that script.

David Chase: 

I can lend it to you. I don’t think it holds up that well. My assistant thinks we should get it done now. But, I don’t know.

Kary Antholis: 

Minnesota Strip. Tell me what Minnesota Strip was about. And then tell me about the process of um, of writing it, and of the politics, dealing with racial and sociological aspects of that.

David Chase: (01:19:57)

Yes. Well the idea was not mine. The idea was the idea of Meta Rosenberg, who had been my boss and the executive producer on Rockford. And we became very good friends. Now, Meta has kind of a checkered past, but I didn’t know that at the time. Among other things, she was head of the story department at Paramount when she was 19. Just, brilliant woman. It was her idea. I think she read it in People magazine, the story about these young women from Minnesota, mostly blondes, I guess. I think that was the appeal. And for some reason, there was a large pimp population in… somewhere in the south. And these African American pimps would come to Minnesota, or be from Minnesota, get these young women, take them to New York, and put them on, I forget whether it was 7th or 8th Avenue, which was called the Minnesota Strip, because there were so many women from Minnesota there. White women.

David Chase: 

And Meta’s idea was to do a story about a young women who had gone and worked on Minnesota Strip for a while. And then was brought back to her home, and tries to fit in with her small town in Minnesota again. 

David Chase: 

Meta and I did a lot of research. We went to a lot of reform schools for girls in California. Heard a lot of different stories. Very often they all ended the same way, which was that they had been molested or abused as children. This was a big deal. Nobody knew this at that time. Or at least it wasn’t known by the population. So we went all around California, did a lot of research talking to these girls. And hen I was sent back to Minnesota to meet the cop who had brought back a couple of these girls. A guy named Gary McGaughey. And he introduced me to some of these ex or current prostitutes. And they told me a lot of things that had happened with them and their pimps. I was there for about three days. And I came back, started to plot out the story and write it. And I just couldn’t, I couldn’t get anywhere with it. I got the idea that if I pictured it in my hometown in New Jersey, not in Minnesota, I’d be okay. Which I did. Smooth sailing. If I pictured a park, I pictured Grover Cleveland Park. That’s why I put a lot of stuff in New Jersey, because it helps me imagine a place. And after that it wasn’t, and we still kept it in Minnesota, but it worked very well.

David Chase:

I won the Emmy award, and I won a Writers Guild award.

David Chase:

I want to tell you, tell you one more thing about Minnesota Strip. Minnesota Strip was very explosive at the time. I wrote it for for NBC. They said it was just too shocking. And ABC picked it up. So we wrote it and then they were shocked by the idea, by seeing it on, got this black guy and this young white girl. And they sent it to University of Pennsylvania, to some media research place. And there was a guy named George somebody, a professor there, who read it and gave it right to the broadcast standards department, “Can we put this on the air? What needs to be changed?” And I remember reading the report. And this guy said, “I can just picture that big black cock going down her throat.” And I thought, “Who the fuck is this cretin,” you know? And he was supposed to be telling us… It’s pretty self explanatory. But I remember that. I thought they didn’t want to show it because we had put a black person in the role of a pimp. Not true. They didn’t want to show it because in the movie, the black guy put his hand on her knee, and the south said no. The station owners refused to carry it. It, it was just …

Kary Antholis: 

How did that resolve itself? Did they cut out …

David Chase:

They put it on the air. I know. They did it. They put it on the air. They put it on the air, I don’t remember what happened with that.

Kary Antholis: 

So it wasn’t political correctness, it was censorship, basically.

David Chase: 

Absolutely. Absolutely censorship. Fascist censorship. Racist censorship.

Kary Antholis: 

Wow. 

End of Part 1