On screen, Tony Soprano's extended family is half biological, half diabolical. But on location for the revered HBO gangster saga's top secret series-finale episode, a third, behind-the-scenes Sopranos clan waits behind the camera. It's a chilly March night, and James Gandolfini and Jamie-Lynn Sigler are filming a characteristically heartfelt but head-butting daddy/daughter conversation between Tony and Meadow in a SoHo Japanese restaurant. During camera setups, Gandolfini wanders to the rear of the eatery, away from his TV offspring, and begins mischievously lobbing Altoids at the head of his real-life 7-year-old son, Michael. Sitting directly to the left of Michael is Sopranos creator David Chase, who is directing the finale next to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Denise. The lines separating relation by blood, script, and time card have all vanished. After shooting six and a half seasons in 10 years, everyone here is considered in the show's parlance ''family.'' They've been through countless ''Greatest TV Drama Ever!'' deifications, and almost as many ''It's not as good as it used to be!'' critical backlashes. They've seen death pools gamble on their whack-prone characters, and watched TV give birth to numerous tough-talking antiheroes clearly inspired by their own show. The cast, crew, extended relations they're close as kin, brothers in arms, friends 4-eva...
Yet in two weeks, when production on the last of these nine episodes (which premiere April 8 at 9 p.m.) is finished, they'd better find themselves a new gang. Show's over, don't let the Bada hit you in the Bing on your way out. Because Chase, the family's capo di tutti capi the man who shapes all the threats that come out of Tony's mouth, the dreams that come out of his head, the bullets that come out of his minions' guns is done. He's not unsentimental, but after controlling and inspecting every aspect of 86 episodes, he's spent. ''A point will come when I'll think, 'Oh, man, I miss those people, I miss that process,''' says Chase between takes. But right now? ''It'll feel like relief.... Creatively, artistically it's finished.'' And while the rest of his cast is in an extended state of say it ain't so mourning, Gandolfini is right behind Chase on his way out the door. Though he is careful to say how important the show and cast are to him, Gandolfini doesn't seem plagued by any rueful nostalgia. ''We're all gonna see each other,'' he says, the sound of his foot tapping almost as loud as his voice. ''But for me, personally, it's time to go.''
But how will the show go out? Brutally, bloodily, and loudly, like Joe Pantoliano's Ralph Cifaretto? Or abruptly and senselessly, with a pathetic whimper, like Adriana's pocket dog, fatally sat upon by a drug-addled Christopher? During last year's polarizing first half of season 6, some fans and critics salivating for a wild wind-down complained of meandering plotlines, such as Tony's alternate-reality coma state, or Vito's Johnny Cakes detour to New Hampshire. On a DVD commentary for one of those 2006 episodes, Chase referenced that criticism by sarcastically introducing The Sopranos as ''the famous show where nothing happens,'' and his sneer was visible even on an audio track. Merely mentioning it on the set exasperates him all over again, and he cites last year's ninth episode, which revolved around a mishap at an Italian street festival involving Janice and her baby girl. ''Someone said, 'So an amusement-park ride breaks, that's what The Sopranos is about now?''' Chase, 61, shakes his head, his weary eyes even wearier. ''That episode was about the need for stimulation. People have an emptiness within them, and you need to be stimulated and do something. Not only that, but Paulie Walnuts saw the Virgin Mary! That's nothing happening? I don't know what to say.'' He laughs, but it is not the laugh of a man who has put this behind him. ''The thing is,'' he adds, flashing a wicked grin, ''I'll say, 'You want to see nothing?' And I'll do less. Sometimes it's hard not to enjoy that you're irritating some people.''
Is that a threat? Will The Sopranos end with a nine-episode arc of Tony painting his basement in real time? Chase won't go that far: The notoriously secretive master plotter has revealed that Tony's truce with acting New York boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) will start to fray, and that Christopher's (Michael Imperioli) slasher movie will finally be finished. But when it comes to the series finale always a near-impossible landing to stick for beloved shows Chase is dead set against yielding to demand for a definitive period at the end of the series' sentence. (A jail sentence? A death sentence?) Chase has always said The Sopranos isn't a morality tale, and he has no interest in the tidy TV tradition of tying up all loose ends. After all, people have been asking him for nearly six years what happened to the Russian who escaped from Paulie and Christopher in the Pine Barrens, and he's still confounded by the question. ''I remember David saying, 'I don't know what happened to him,''' says Imperioli. ''In TV everyone's used to closure, but David said in life things happen and they're a big deal while you're going through it, but they don't always resolve and they kind of drift out of your consciousness. He'd rather the show be more like life.''
Chase came up with the endgame about four years ago. ''There'll be people who will like the finale, and people who won't like it,'' shrugs Chase. ''But I think that if people look at what the show was, or could even watch the whole story again, they'll understand what the ending is.'' Keeping The Sopranos consistent is, as always, Chase's top priority. He oversees everything, from writing the final polish on all scripts to supervising the editing of each episode. (He directed the pilot, but his time-consuming control has since kept him from such duty until the finale, providing a nice bookend for the series.) ''He agonizes over the show,'' says Paramount chief and Sopranos executive producer Brad Grey. ''I've never seen anyone give as much attention to detail and care for every component of a show as David.''
But more pressing than the fatigue was the fact that in his mind, the story was finished. ''I felt we'd really done it,'' says Chase, who plans after a vacation to pursue his longtime goal of directing a movie. (He once mentioned to EW his desire to do a psychological thriller, and Grey hopes to lure him to Paramount.) ''These characters don't have much in the way of goals that they're trying to achieve. The adults are rooted in their spot, they stay in their own neighborhoods. They don't try any extreme skiing or anything like that,'' he laughs. ''There's not much you can do with them without jumping the shark.''
You could forgive his cast for not believing him when, before the sixth season began, he announced this would be the last one. He'd said the same thing before three of the previous five seasons. And then he ended up stretching this sixth cycle from its usual 13 episodes to 21 episodes, split into two parts. Edie Falco (Tony's suffering but enabling wife, Carmela) held out hope that this was just another false alarm. ''It does take him a while to talk himself into believing that he can find the story lines,'' she says. ''He ends up saying, 'I can do this, and this...''' But they all soon realized this wasn't a decision that was going to change. ''In the past, he maybe felt like he couldn't do it anymore,'' says HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht. ''But this was, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I know where I want to end it and I want to get to that ending.'''
In late February, at The Sopranos' base in Queens' Silvercup Studios (which houses all the interior sets, such as the Soprano home, the Bada Bing! back room, and Dr. Melfi's office), the cast and producers gathered around a square of folding tables for the read-through of the final script the point when all the actors speak their lines aloud for the first time. At the end of the previous 85 read-throughs, everyone clapped and rushed off either to go their separate ways or to get back to filming. When No. 86 was done, people clapped...and then nobody moved, stunned into silence at the realization that this would be their last such gathering. ''There was probably a good three minutes of silence,'' remembers Sigler. ''Nobody wanted to get up, nobody wanted it to feel like it was the end. We wanted David to turn to us and say, 'Just kidding! We're actually doing more!''' Says Aida Turturro, who plays Tony's sister, Janice, ''You have a group of very bigmouthed people there, me being one of them, and I couldn't speak.''
Barring the occasional unexpected whacking (Mikey Palmice, we hardly knew ya!), The Sopranos has been a wonderfully safe haven for its cast. (Job stability and orgasmic reviews? Not a bad way to spend 10 years.) And now it's vanishing. ''It's like we're reaching the end of a cliff,'' says the soft-spoken and most un-Uncle-Junior-like Dominic Chianese about the final days of shooting. ''We're gonna fly and take off.'' Some people are grabbing souvenirs: Chianese is hoping to hold on to Junior's storm-window-size glasses; Falco nabbed a ''hideous wall hanging with shells and a sea horse'' from the Soprano family kitchen (''I decided Carmela made it in craft class''); and Lorraine Bracco has laid claim to Dr. Melfi's whole office. And then there are future plans to be made: Falco wants a break from TV and is considering doing a play; Imperioli is shooting a comedy in Iceland and developing another series with HBO; and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) is going back to his day job in music, where he must occasionally answer to another famous New Jersey ''Boss.'' (The acting world is ''too cutthroat,'' he says.) As for Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), he wants it known he's open to a sitcom in New York: ''Something like an Uncle Carmine who just got out of jail after 20 years. Maybe he's living with Kelly Ripa, his daughter. Funny stuff!'' But all of them would be happy to give all those opportunities up for more Sopranos. ''As far as I'm concerned, you could follow these characters for the rest of their lives, and it would, I hope, be at least a little bit interesting,'' says Falco. ''But this is not my show. I am but a cog, and I trust that if David says the story is done, then we're done.'' At the very least, Sirico demands a movie version. ''Especially because they're [in talks] to shoot Sex and the City on the big screen,'' he rants. ''How dare they? Am I right?''
Should The Sopranos ever really head to the big screen, they may have to recast the part of Tony. The 45-year-old Gandolfini sounds unwavering about his desire to leave the character behind. ''It's a funny show, but it's a harsh f---ing show,'' he says. ''You stay in that world a lot, you want to take a bath afterwards. David really cuts to the essence of primates: a little insult, you pick the lice off me the wrong way, and it's all kind of s---, man.'' And as Tony, he's been violent, pensive, emotional, tortured and always at the center of this animal frenzy, a demanding proposition. ''Energy is part of what makes this show,'' says Turturro. ''James doesn't get enough credit for its success. Year after year and scene after scene, he works so hard.''
The actor likens himself to a sponge, and every day he's had to come in and wring himself out. ''Playing somebody 80 hours a week, you wonder if it's shaping you while you're shaping it,'' he says a formidable question considering the similarities between the actor and character. ''I had certain things: a ridiculous temper for no reason, like a child,'' he says. ''Actually, as the character was working on that, I was working on it through the character. A lot of the s--- Tony found out in therapy helped me: Depression is anger turned inward, all that stuff.'' For the last two seasons, Gandolfini's considered moving on, but Chase always convinced him there was more to say. ''I don't think we went on too long,'' says the actor. ''But if we kept going, we would.''
While Gandolfini and Chase may be ready to go, fans can't help but look for any hint of waffling that might provide hope that The Sopranos might somehow, someway, someday come back. Like this entry buried in Chase's résumé: The onetime scribe for The Rockford Files, which ended in 1980, wrote a 1996 reunion TV movie for James Garner called The Rockford Files: Punishment and Crime. Aha! So maybe he does always come back! Explain that, Mr. Finale! ''Frankly,'' says Chase, sticking a shiv in our fantasy, ''I think we should have left Rockford in the '70s. And I wouldn't make that mistake again.''
And yet... ''That doesn't mean I would rule it out,'' he adds. What's that?!? Stop the presses! Maybe Tony Sirico is onto something after all! Chase sighs. ''The reason I'm so cautious about this is, I say these things, and then they say, 'David Chase is jerking our chain. He's trying to lead us on that maybe there will be a Sopranos movie.' I'm not.'' His voice rises with the same frustrated emphasis that Al Gore's gets when he says for the thousandth time that he does not intend to run for president. ''There is no plan. I don't think we should do one. But everybody reserves the right to change their mind at some time, or miss something and want to go back to it. I'm realistic enough not to rule that out, but I would say the chances are really unlikely.''
Gandolfini may not want to carry his alter ego forward, but what about looking back? Any regrets over the past six seasons? ''I wish we didn't kill Vinnie Pastore [Big Pussy],'' says the actor. ''He was a great character.'' Anyone else? ''No,'' he says with a smirk. ''Everyone else should have f---in' died. Sooner.''