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10 Years Later: When The Sopranos Blacked Out

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The late James Gandolfini, the imposing and formidable character actor who became famous virtually overnight for his portrayal of a mobster who submitted to psychoanalysis for six seasons on HBO’s The Sopranos, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he had a plain and simple reaction after viewing the show’s finale:

“What the f*ck?”

That brief review would be echoed by critics and fans in the days and months following the episode’s broadcast on June 10, 2007. Titled “Made in America,” The Sopranos's series finale featured one last supper with Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), wife Carmela (Edie Falco), and children Meadow and A.J. (Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler). Converging at Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, the family appears at least temporarily free of the stress Tony’s life of crime has brought into their world. Tony orders onion rings, selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” from the tabletop jukebox, and seems relieved his domestic life is intact.

Moments later, the screen goes black. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is cut off so abruptly that many viewers believed they were experiencing a cable outage. It remained that way for 11 seconds before the credits rolled, a curious void of content that quickly became one of the most infamous endings to a series in the history of television. As far as fans were concerned, creator David Chase may or may not have whacked Tony, but he definitely whacked them.

James Gandolfini and David Chase on the set of "The Sopranos"
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When Chase was growing up in Clifton, New Jersey, in the 1950s, his father owned a hardware store, and his business partner had a son. The son’s cousins had an usual family name—Soprano—that stuck with Chase for decades. After duties on episodic television like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, Chase stumbled onto an idea about a mobster who was in therapy. After Fox and other networks passed, The Sopranos landed at HBO in 1999.

Although the channel’s prison drama Oz, which had premiered two years earlier, signaled the network's newfound commitment to hour-long dramas, The Sopranos was cut from an entirely different mold. Novelistic and ruminative, the show seemed to delight in taking the tropes of mob fiction and turning them on their head. When Doctor Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is sexually assaulted, it seemed assured that she’d eventually turn to her patient, Tony, in order to exact vengeance. (She doesn’t.) When Tony’s wife has an affair with one of his lieutenants, viewers braced for an inevitable face-to-face showdown that never occurred. Given near-total autonomy over the tone and direction of the series, Chase was able to embrace his preference for ambiguity.

While it ran for eight years, there were just six seasons; Chase didn’t produce material for air in either 2003 or 2005, nor did he have any desire to overstay his welcome. In 2006, the network aired the first 12 episodes of a planned 21-episode final season. Although it was a long march to the finish line, speculation ran rampant over how Tony's story would conclude.

In later interviews, Chase explained he had the idea for the finale early on. Tony’s unethical conduct seemed to point to only two inevitable outcomes: jail or death. But Chase inserted a third option that most critics and fans hadn’t counted on—that previously expressed love of ambiguity.

Chase would later admit he shot an alternate, as-yet-unexplained ending as a red herring to throw off people trying to find leaks of plot details. The ending he was committed to, however, took place at Holsten’s, a real restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. After disposing of yet another mob rival, Tony greets each member of his family as they walk into the restaurant, a bell chiming overhead. As his son comes in, a man in a Members Only jacket ambles into the location and later enters the restroom.

What happens next is left open to interpretation. Echoing a comment made by Soprano associate Bobby Bacala earlier in the season that you never hear “it” (read: a gunman) coming, it’s possible Chase meant for viewers to experience the suddenness of being clipped from behind, perhaps by the man who had entered the restroom. The abrupt end of “Don’t Stop Believin’” hints at that.

Viewers, however, didn’t want to choose their own climax. As soon as the episode aired, a national outcry bemoaned the lack of any answers. Some thought their cable had been disconnected. Others figured it out once the credits rolled and became so incensed that they bombarded HBO’s official website with complaints. (HBO shut its website down that Sunday night.) According to a Yahoo! spokesperson, searches for “Sopranos ending sucked” poured into the search engine. Wikipedia had to lock pages related to the show because users kept editing entries to reflect the “fact” that Chase had ruined the series.

Chase, who had timed a holiday in France to avoid most of the feedback, granted an interview days later. While he refused to answer the question of whether Tony was dead, he insisted that all the information a viewer needed was in the scene. “Anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” Chase said.

An exterior shot of Holsten's in Bloomfield, New Jersey
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When Chase pops up in media to discuss current projects, talk still usually turns to the furor caused by the blackout. While he has always demurred on the question of whether Tony survived his plate of onion rings at Holsten’s, he did elaborate on some of the decisions made in the scene during a 2015 Directors Guild of America interview.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” was selected, he said, because the lyrics seem to be a close match for the personal journey of Tony and his wife. The “midnight train” referenced in the song was a parallel to the fateful decisions made by the couple years ago—“the dark train,” as Chase put it. The man in the Members Only jacket entered with A.J. so the audience’s attention would be focused more on the face they knew than the suspicious man they didn’t.

The closing shot, a jarring end to what looked to be a peaceful dinner, wasn’t intended to frustrate viewers. “I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure,” Chase said. “But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing.”

And the theories regarding Bobby Bacala’s comments foreshadowing Tony’s death? “When it’s over, I think you’re probably always blindsided by it," Chase offered. “That’s all I can say.”

It’s hard to know, once the initial shock of the closing moments wore off, whether viewers ever softened their stance on the finale. (At the time, newspapers were filled with quotes by fans calling it “unbelievably cruel” and accusing Chase of some kind of conspiracy to annoy them.) For at least one viewer, it took just one night of introspection to come to an entirely different opinion.

“After I had a day to sleep,” Gandolfini said in 2012, “I just sat there and said, ‘That’s perfect.’”

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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