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21 Oct 2023


NextImg:Burt Young’s Guest Spot on ‘The Sopranos’ Was Everything That Made the Show Great

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The Sopranos

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Not many actors can say they embodied a masterpiece in a few minutes of screentime. I certainly doubt that’s what Burt Young had in mind when he appeared on The Sopranos back in 2001. But the lovable Rocky alum’s turn as an ailing, elderly hitman who’s got one last burst of violence in him is getting held up as one of the veteran actor’s most memorable roles for a reason. In a handful of scenes in a one-off performance, Young gets his nicotine-stained fingers on nearly everything important aspect of the show. It’s a role seemingly written to illustrate what this show is about, with Young selected to give the demonstration.

The episode on which Young appears (Season 3, Episode 5) takes its title, “Another Toothpick,” from Janice Soprano’s morbid assessment of the latest person she knows to be diagnosed with, and eventually eaten away by, cancer. Young’s character, Bobby Baccalieri Sr., is another toothpick himself. Once a hitman with a reputation so fearsome that Tony Soprano jokingly refers to him in a later season as “the fucking Terminator,” he’s now dealing with terminal lung cancer in the mafia equivalent of retirement. Retirement is exactly where his son, the genial Bobby Baccala, and his old friend, Junior Soprano, want him to stay.

But when a guy named Mustang Sally, who turns out to be Bobby Sr.’s godson, commits a horrific assault on the relative of a made guy, Tony calls the old man out of retirement to execute him. The logic is that as his godfather, Baccalieri can gain Sally’s trust, get him to let his guard down, and take him out without any difficulty.

Unfortunately, an unexpected bystander turns what should have been a nearly surgical hit into an ear-severing, bystander-killing, blood-coughing shitshow. Bobby Sr. eventually gets the better of his much younger quarry, but at the cost of a coughing jag that simply will not stop — though one last cigarette helps. The strain is too much for him in the end, and he dies behind the wheel of his crashed car on the way home from the job.

BURT YOUNG CAR CRASH

From top to bottom, Young’s Bobby Sr. embodies many of The Sopranos’ central themes. His stoic tough-guy vibe is juxtaposed with the gentle disposition of his son, an instance of the show’s ever-present generational contrast and conflict. He’s a living treatise on the indignities of growing old and growing sick, two ongoing obsessions of the show — reflected in this very episode in Uncle Junior’s own cancer diagnosis. 

His murder of Mustang Sally, meanwhile, is like an object lesson in just how sordid and shitty the mafia’s alleged moral code really is. Sally puts a guy in a coma for talking to the wrong woman. Normally that would be fine, but the guy is slightly more connected to the mob than Sally is himself. This means Sally has to die, which means his own godfather (choke on that, Coppola) has to do the deed. The killing itself, besides being a horrific violation of trust, is a dispiriting and nauseating mess — Sally is maimed before he finally gets shot in the head, the bystander begs for his life before Bobby Sr. finishes the job, and Bobby Sr. toasts himself with a cigarette. In the end, three people are dead and one is in the hospital over absolutely nothing. That’s The Sopranos’ attitude about violence right there.

(None of this is particularly surprising if you look at the talent involved behind the camera, by the way. The episode is written by Terence Winter, one of the very best Sopranos writers, who would go on to create the sublime and supremely underrated Boardwalk Empire, an even bleaker meditation on crime and guilt. Additionally, “Another Toothpick” is directed by Jack Bender, who as the go-to director for Lost is arguably more responsible than any other figure for crafting that show’s visceral thrills.)

This is harder to put a finger on, but the sequence also encompasses a major emotional tendency in The Sopranos: the moment of climactic or cathartic moral weakness. Think of Tony vomiting from the strain of beating up a much younger minion, then smiling into the mirror. Think of Christopher shooting a bakery employee in the foot for talking back to him, then dismissing it with a glib “it happens.” Think of Tony smiling in his car as his henchman Furio beats, tortures, and terrifies the employees of a massage parlor that owes him money. The image of a dying Baccalieri taking a deep lung-destroying drag after brutally murdering a man who trusted him, deriving a small but undeniable pleasure from having done something terrible, is a quintessential Sopranos image.

BURT YOUNG POST KILL CIG

The sequence is also the centerpiece of a trilogy of incidents that turned The Sopranos away from its broader, more black-comedy roots into the gleaming engine of misery and menace it became. “Employee of the Month,” the episode that aired before “Another Toothpick,” depicted the rape of Dr. Jennifer Melfi; “University,” which followed it, showed Ralph Cifaretto beat his pregnant teenage girlfriend to death. This is not to say the show didn’t take violence seriously before this point, since it obviously did, but this sequence was a point of no return. 

Burt Young is the man who makes this all possible. He looks and sounds every bit the gruff old hitman, equal parts twinkly-eyed teddy bear and dead-eyed predator. As he did throughout his career, he convincingly ages himself up, looking ancient before his time. (He was only 60 in real life.) Indeed, he looks and sounds so much as if he’s on death’s door that I’ve seen more than one person express surprise he hadn’t died years ago instead of earlier this week at age 83. That’s acting, is what that is.

And as such, it’s exemplary of one of The Sopranos’ greatest strengths: Recognizing the depths within a countless array of guest stars, character actors, and guest-starring character actors. Think of how Steven R. Schirippa and Vincent Curatola both took their “third goombah to the left”-type parts as Bobby Baccala and Johnny Sack and segued effortlessly into main-character status. (The sense that minor characters could become major at the drop of a hat is one of the most exciting things about watching The Sopranos). Think of the incredible parts written for established talents like Annabella Sciorra, Joe Pantoliano, or Frank Vincent, all of who come in and change the fabric of the show. Think of James Gandolfini himself, a movie heavy who wound up delivering the greatest performance in the history of television. 

Young’s appearance exists in that continuum. Coming at a key moment for the show, a moment when The Sopranos was really becoming The Sopranos, it’s an example of why that was such a great thing to begin with. Burt Young worked dark magic in a handful of minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, after the victory of the WGA in their own strike over similar issues. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the show being covered here wouldn’t exist.