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LOS ANGELES - How do you revisit the world of "The Sopranos" without James Gandolfini?
Cast the son of the late actor as a troubled teen who later grows up to become a conflicted Mafia leader - and one of pop culture's most beloved characters.
Fourteen years after the screen famously faded to black at the end of six television seasons, "Sopranos" creator David Chase returns with a film prequel set in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s.
"The Many Saints of Newark," opening in U.S. movie theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, features younger versions of "Sopranos" characters, including Paulie, Janice, Junior, Carmela and matriarch Livia.
Michael Gandolfini, who was 14 when his father died of a heart attack in 2013 at age 51, plays the young Tony Soprano, with the same hunched stance and enigmatic eyes of the middle-aged New Jersey Mafia boss who consulted a psychiatrist for panic attacks.
Gandolfini had never seen the TV series, which brought his father multiple awards, before he auditioned.
"The experience of watching (the series) for the first time was very emotional. But once I sort of had gotten that out, it mostly was I was there to do a job and be the best actor that I could be," Gandolfini said.
"Many Saints" director Alan Taylor said he didn't realize initially that casting Gandolfini was going to become such a talking point "but it is the most charismatic thing about the movie in a way."
"I was wary, because I thought how can you ask a young guy to take this on and to immerse myself in his dad? The good news is that he had wrestled with that himself and by the time he met me and we'd had an audition, he'd already made peace with it," said Taylor.
Taylor said his mind was put at rest at a cast dinner before shooting on the movie began.
"He (Michael) stood up and said he wanted to thank everybody for giving him a chance to say hello to his dad again and goodbye again, and tearing up. ... He did a tremendous amount of homework to get his character down, and I think it has worked out."
For all the attention on Gandolfini, the young Tony Soprano is not the focus of the new film. That role belongs to the charismatic but flawed mobster Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola), who Tony viewed as his surrogate father but who died before the stories in the TV series begin.
Chase said it had been "nothing but pleasure" returning to the world he created in the late 1990s. New Jersey venues, including Satriale's Pork Store, were recreated for the film, and key scenes take place at Holsten's restaurant.
"I think 'The Sopranos' is the favorite show that I ever wrote, and it was great going back there," the writer and producer said.
But Chase is wary about promising to return a third time.