Steve Daly
January 07, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

The last of the guests were shuffling into this year’s emmy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles when two enormous buses lurched into view. Oddly, the rock-tour-style vehicles had New Jersey Transit logos stenciled on their sides. With only a few minutes to go till show time, one of the buses drove right over a divider and cut ahead of a long line of black town cars and fancy sedans. The doors opened and onto the pavement bounded James Gandolfini, the burly, 6-foot-1 star of HBO’s critically hailed Mob-family series The Sopranos. His stellar performance as anxiety-hobbled crime boss Tony Soprano had made him a heavyweight contender for Lead Actor in a Drama Series ever since the show’s first 13 episodes began airing back in January ’99. Gandolfini was attending on HBO’s dime, along with the core Sopranos cast and crew, who cheered his step-off from inside the buses. They’d all taken furloughs from shooting second-season episodes back in New Jersey and Queens, N.Y., for a new 13-show cycle that begins airing Jan. 16.

What kind of brass-knuckle entrance was this in a town where luxury limos and sedate, two-by-two promenades are de rigueur on awards nights?

”It was my idea!” whoops Brooklyn-born Lorraine Bracco, sounding little like Dr. Melfi, the calm, buttoned-down psychiatrist she plays on the show. ”It says so much about who we are,” she enthuses. ”We’re not a snobby, prima donna kind of crowd. It was much more fun to be together than to have all these different limos. We had a grrreat bus driver. We had bartenders and a DJ. We put music on really loud and rocked out on the way there.”

Call it the Sopranos creed: Do your best to flout convention, and wear your outsider status like a badge of honor. Of course, that’s not always the stuff Emmy sweeps are made of, as evidenced by the Television Academy’s less-than-generous attitude toward the series. Yes, Long Island native Edie Falco did win an unexpected best-actress statuette for her hilarious turn as frustrated housewife Carmela Soprano. Yes, The Sopranos took an editing prize and a casting award. And yes, the show’s creator and executive producer, David Chase, won a writing award (with James Manos Jr.) in a category thoroughly dominated by The Sopranos (it cornered four of the five nominations). But Gandolfini lost to previous three-time winner Dennis Franz for NYPD Blue. And in 11 more races, the Sopranos nominees wuz, as one New York tabloid put it, robbed.

Three months later, the voting results still irk some of the cast members. ”The problem is, when you get all the Sopranos crew together, we become Sopranos,” explains 33-year-old actor Michael Imperioli, who plays boss Tony’s hotheaded nephew Christopher. ”You just get into that Sopranos head. So we were very sore losers. We were not gracious at all.”

”I do feel we were gypped,” says Bracco firmly. ”I thought we’d at least win [drama] series. [That went to ABC’s The Practice]. I mean, even David Kelley said, ‘I think there’s been a mistake.’ If you’re going to give awards every year, get in the moment, you know? It was our moment.”

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