As a tribute to the actor, James Gandolfini, who died at the age of 51 yesterday in Rome while on vacation, the following is a story about his hit television series, The Sopranos, taken from my 2012 book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter. I did not know Mr. Gandolfini, but I admired his tenacity and skill; I also met him once in my Greenwich Village neighborhood, and had a delightfully memorable chat. The story is not about him but is the best tribute I can offer; and for a great actor such as him, it seems apt.
In 2002, Robert Baer, a former municipal judge and county prosecutor from hardscrabble Elizabeth, New Jersey, claimed a right to half the value of the Emmy Award-winning HBO television series, “The Sopranos,” believing he had a deal with writer David Chase to co-develop it.
Baer’s dream was to write television shows and, eventually, he persuaded a mutual friend to interest Chase in reading one of his scripts. Chase, a native of North Jersey, was already an accomplished figure in television, with several Emmy Awards to his credit, as well as shows such as the “Rockford Files,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and “Northern Exposure” under his belt.
The two met in June 1995 in California. At the time, Chase was developing an idea for a television series about a mob boss undergoing psychiatric therapy. In this meeting, Baer suggested that Chase shoot it in North Jersey and the two kicked around some other ideas.
In August 1995, Chase submitted a program proposal to Fox Broadcasting, which agreed one month later to finance a pilot for the show. Chase thereafter asked for Baer’s help in compiling information about the mafia’s inner workings. In response, Baer contacted acquaintances in the local prosecutor’s office, including Lieutenant Robert Jones, an organized crime expert. Based on their conversation, Baer prepared notes for Chase profiling some underworld characters and detailing the mob’s role in the sanitation business and gambling activities.
In October of that year, the two met again in New Jersey for Chase to do more research. There, Baer regaled Chase with New Jersey true-crime stories during a three-day tour of the region. Baer also introduced Chase to other experts: Detective Thomas Koczur, a homicide specialist, and Antonio Spirito, an Italian waiter and riveting storyteller. Koczur played the tour guide, driving Baer and Chase around to view area landmarks, mob hangouts, and criminal crannies. Some of these later provided the backdrop for the show’s regular opening sequence, while others appeared in various episodes.
Koczur also arranged for the group to dine with the local mobster, Antonio Spirito, who plied them with personal gangland tales and became the model for the show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano. One tidbit Spirito shared referenced two cat-burglar mob brothers called “Little Pussy” and “Big Pussy,” the latter a name Chase gave to a character in the series. Jones profiled the Jewish Mafioso, Morris Levy, then in prison, who bore a close resemblance to the role of Hesh Rabkin on “The Sopranos.”
After the trip, Chase polished up his pilot and submitted it to Fox, also sending a copy to Baer, who later provided written comments on it. Throughout, there was some discussion of payment between Baer and Chase, but no actual agreement was ever reached and Chase never paid Baer any money. The two had only agreed that Chase would read another of Baer’s scripts in return for the help he had given.
“The Sopranos” launched in 1999 on HBO, became a popular and critical hit, and ran through 2007. In May 2002, Baer sued, claiming the show and its protagonist were his ideas, entitling him to half the millions in profits Chase had received. Baer asserted breach of contract and quasi-contract, among other claims. The suit sickened Chase’s stomach, he sobbed upon learning of it, and five years of litigation followed. Read More