Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
The Death of Tony Soprano’s Mother
By Allan May
The death this past week of Nancy Marchand, the unlovable television mother of Tony Soprano, will leave a definite void in the popular HBO series “The Sopranos” when it returns in March of 2001.
Marchand died Sunday, June 18 at her home in Connecticut of lung cancer, which had been diagnosed during the second season. Last Monday would have been her 72nd birthday. Her husband of 47 years, Paul Sparer, was a victim of cancer last November.
As an actress, Marchand will also be remembered for her role as Mrs. Pynchon in the Lou Grant television series. Marchand’s career led her to roles on and off Broadway as well as in movies and on television. Her movie credits include Dear God, Regarding Henry, The Naked Gun, Bachelor Party and Sabrina.
While Marchand’s character of Livia Soprano may have started out as a sympathetic character in the first episode, by the time she disappointed young Anthony Soprano by forgetting the “fucking ziti” she was already making everyone’s shitlist.
It soon became apparent that Livia was the underlying problem creating Tony’s anxiety attacks forcing him to seek professional help in the form of psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). This relationship provided the background for the series.
As the first season progressed, viewers became sympathetic to Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) efforts to care for his mother, whose mental facilities were slipping to the point that she almost burned her house down. Many fans could empathize with Tony making a difficult decision in having Livia placed in a senior citizens home where she would be under 24 hour care. Livia was never happy with the place and her negative attitude came forward during every family visit.
As Livia’s personality became more manipulative during the season, the audience could see her driving a wedge between Tony and his uncle “Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese). If it weren’t for the loyalty of Tony’s crewmembers the split would have been tragic consequences for him.
The general feeling about Livia by many male viewers is that she needed to be “bitch slapped” a few times. However, she proved to be a creditable foil to Tony whose own personality seemed to be a cross between Harry Truman and Moe Howard. It was no surprise at the end of the first season when Tony found out about Livia’s treachery that he went to the hospital, where she had been transferred, and was determined to smother her.
The only thing preventing Tony from killing Livia was that she had just suffered a stroke. No one can forget the smile on Tony’s face upon hearing that news from a nurse.
During the second season, Livia was banished from Tony’s family. Tony’s sister Janice returned and moved into Livia’s home and eventually brought her home to care for her. Even this effort on Janice’s part couldn’t soften up the old bat. She was still a surly old woman whose viciousness exposed itself again during the next to last episode.
Tony’s second season nemesis was Richie Aprile (David Proval). The animosity and dislike had been building up through the season and everyone was waiting for the season finale showdown.
It never came.
Instead, in the next to last episode Janice, who was engaged to Aprile, blows him away in Livia’s kitchen after he punches her during an argument.
As Tony is taking Janice to get her out of town, Livia comes downstairs and upon being told that Richie had not returned home she belittles her daughter saying that Richie has dumped her just like all the other men she has had relationships with.
Tony quickly comes to his sister’s defense and in what will be his last confrontation with his mother levels a barrage at her from the heart. Livia denies what he says, but is left in tears. As Tony departs the house, he trips down the steps, sprawling out on the sidewalk and losing his gun. It is here that most viewers will have their last memory of Livia as she laughs at her son’s mishap while slamming the front door.
Livia’s character is essential to the show. It will be interesting to see how writer/director David Chase handles it. Will he bring in a new Livia? Marchand will be a tough act to replace. That will mean the loss of two of the original main characters. Many viewers are still wondering if “Big Pussy” Bompenserio (Vincent Pastore) is really “sleeping with the fish” or will Chase write that Tony only dreamed the murder.
Many Sopranos fans can identify with having a mother with the personality and the demons that Livia possessed. Perhaps that’s why her character endeared a lot of fans to her as is witnessed by the postings on HBO’s Soprano’s webpage, where there has been a forum devoted to messages to the late Nancy Marchand.
Whether we liked her or not Mrs. Soprano will be missed.
Copyright A. R. May 2000