When David Chase began working on the idea for The Sopranos, he thought of ways a mafia boss could be undone by the influence of a toxic mother. For the mother character, Chase didn’t have to look far — the idea for Livia (played by Nancy Marchand) came straight from his own childhood.
However, the mafia stories were different. While Chase knew of mob figures growing up in New Jersey (a cousin of his worked for the Boiardo family), he depended largely on his imagination for the direction of the Sopranos mob plots.
That’s not to say Chase didn’t incorporate details from his own life into the series. For example, the names of characters (including Bucco and Melfi) came direct from Chase’s family. And on one occasion Chase incorporated a family drama into an episode. It came in season 1’s “Down Neck.”
The ‘Sopranos’ plotline of the family moving out West came from an idea David Chase’s father had
In “Down Neck” (season 1 episode 7), viewers see a great deal of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in his psychiatrist’s office. And several noteworthy events in Tony’s early childhood appear on the screen via flashback.
The list includes: young Tony watching his father (“Johnny Boy”) beat up a man from the neighborhood; Livia telling Tony she’ll stick a fork in his eye; and Tony watching his father get arrested. Late in the episode, we see Tony eavesdrop on a conversation his parents have.
Johnny is pitching an idea to Livia about moving the family out to Reno. An associate named Rocco is moving there to open a betting operation (“a book”). After that, Rocco plans to open a super club. The idea is, Johnny Soprano would run the club.
As he explains his idea, Livia mocks him at every turn. Reno is a place for “Okies and misfits,” she tells Johnny, “losers.” When he gets to the supper club, Livia thinks even less of it. “A supper club? Are you drunk?” she says. Chase said he based that story on an idea his father had before his mother shot it down.
Chase’s father wanted to move to California after the factory he worked at closed down
On a visit to the Talking Sopranos podcast, Chase explained how that “Down Neck” plotline originated in his home. It started when the factory where his father worked as a draftsman shut down. Some of the displaced employees planned to start over out West.
“There were guys in there who were going to California to start a printing press,” Chase recalled. “And my father wanted to go, really badly. And my mother just wouldn’t hear it. She didn’t want to leave her sisters.”
While Chase didn’t say if his father told his mother she was “scared of your own shadow” (as Johnny told Livia), you can imagine such a domestic drama taking place under any roof. And if one half of the couple refuses, chances are it won’t happen. That’s what happened in Chase’s home.
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