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'Sopranos' nears the end, but Vince Curatola is no sad Sack

There's a chill in the air, but it's not nearly as frigid as the winter day when Vince Curatola stood on this snow-trimmed driveway with James Gandolfini. They were filming the fifth-season finale of "The Sopranos" -- which ended with rifle-toting FBI agents arresting Johnny Sack at his home, and Tony Soprano sprinting into the woods to safety.

"We started working at about 6:30 that morning in December '03, and it was thoroughly ice-cold," Curatola recalls. "We'd come in prepared. Jimmy's a great memorizer. So am I. But when they called us into rehearsal to block it, I looked at Jimmy and said, 'What's the first line?' He looked at me and he said, 'I have no idea.' Now, this is a four-page scene. It was so cold, the brain -- nothing works."

Curatola shakes his head.

"Can you believe it? That was two years ago."

It certainly has felt like an eternity. That cliffhanger aired on June 6, 2004.

"The Sopranos" unfurled the first of 12 episodes of its sixth and final season Sunday night on HBO.

It goes without saying that Curatola can't divulge much about the new season.

"I think Tony Soprano, more and more, is beginning to feel the isolation around him, because little by little, his support systems are beginning to crack," he says.

And Johnny? "Wait till you see my wardrobe," Curatola says, alluding to the bright orange jumpsuit Johnny will wear after being charged with 40-plus counts of murder, gambling and loan-sharking under the RICO act.

"Actually, this season is pivotal about what I go through and how it affects everybody else," Curatola says. "You won't see me in long spurts, but when you do see me, there is a big monster problem, and it's mostly FBI.

"What happens is, everybody's teeth get rattled, because they want to know if they're next. And am I going to talk? 'Cause I could destroy all of them."

Curatola, a series regular since the fourth season, first showed up in the first season's sixth episode, "Pax Soprano." He shot his first "Sopranos" scene in August 1998 at the Brownstone in Paterson, N.J. -- our other stop on Curatola's tour.

Tony and Carmela Soprano had gone there for their anniversary dinner, and Tony came over to Johnny to ask him to broker a deal between Hesh and Uncle Junior.

"This was really where you saw Johnny Sack and realized he was somebody powerful from New York," says Curatola, seated at the bar where he and Tony talked business.

Al Manzo, whose family owns the Brownstone, remembers the morning when some guys in shorts stopped by at around 8 to ask if they could film in his restaurant.

"I'd never heard of the show before, and I really didn't have any real desire to do the show, so I gave them a high price," says Manzo. "When it was all over with, I got a check for about $20,000.' "

The entire first season of "The Sopranos" was shot before the show debuted in January 1999. So, in the summer of '98, no one had an inkling of how huge it would become.

One reason that's often given for the show's success is the perfectionism of "Sopranos" creator David Chase.

"We cannot change anything. Honestly, if you were to hear me say in dialogue, 'Ah, Tony, look,' that 'ah' is written. I can't just throw that 'ah' in if it's not there. So, the amount of memorization is incredible, because it has to be dead-on," Curatola says.

The actor, who hopes to remake "The Untouchables" series as his next project, expects "The Sopranos" to go back into production in June on the final eight episodes, slated to air in early 2007.

"You know, it's funny, 'cause fans always say, 'Well, how would you like to see it end eventually?'" Curatola says. "If I was writing it, I would have Tony Soprano standing alone out in the parking lot. The wife's gone. The kids are gone. I can't help him. The FBI's on him heavy, and maybe there's a guy running up with a shotgun but doesn't shoot him. Looks at him, walks away and figures, you know what? He's not important anymore."

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