One of the most arresting performances in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the new film prequel to “The Sopranos,” is delivered by Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother.
As I watched Farmiga, I kept thinking of the great Nancy Marchand, who created the role of the seething, scheming Livia in the landmark HBO series.
Marchand’s range as an actress and the scope of her career deserve to be remembered better than I fear they are. After all, how many other performers were part of television’s first “golden age” of original live drama in the middle of the 20th century, and then helped kick off its cable-and-streaming-driven second golden age at the start of the 21st century? Not to mention Marchand’s lengthy list of stage credits, both on and off-Broadway.
Livia was actually supposed to die in the first season of “The Sopranos” (1999-2007). But showrunner David Chase jettisoned that plan because the scenes between Marchand and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) crackled with so much volatile energy. Demonstrating great strength and courage in filming “The Sopranos” while battling cancer, Marchand was in nearly two dozen episodes.
When Marchand died in June 2000, a day before her 72d birthday, here’s how I described her Livia in the Globe:
“Her hair flattened against her head, her eyes wild and her voice grating, Livia was an unsettling mixture of whining self-pity and feral fury. Livia’s weird and wicked ways were at the root of Tony’s need to visit a psychiatrist every week, which put him in harm’s way.”
Marchand had made her television debut nearly five decades before in a very different role, in a live TV play that was one of the medium’s early landmarks. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” in 1953, she played Clara, a shy but tender-hearted high school teacher who is cruelly ditched at a dance hall by her blind date, who describes her as a “dog” to the lonely Bronx butcher of the title (Rod Steiger).
Clara and Marty hit it off, but the next day, Marty faces the derision of his friends, who claim she is unattractive. He has to decide how much their opinion matters to him.
In “Lou Grant” (1977-82), Marchand played Mrs. Pynchon, the elegant, principled, Katharine Graham-like owner-publisher of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune, where Lou Grant (Ed Asner) was city editor. Marchand could also do farce: In “The Naked Gun”’ (1988), she played the image-conscious mayor of LA, exasperated beyond endurance by the shenanigans of dunce-like Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen).
Then, at the very end of her life, Marchand reached down deep to create a bitterly warped monster-matriarch for the ages in Livia Soprano. Fans of “The Sopranos” rightly mourn the loss of Gandolfini, who died eight years ago at the age of 51. But when they’re saluting what made the series great, they should also raise a glass to Nancy Marchand.