The Man Who Tells Tony Soprano What To Do

Tim Van Patten grimaces when you ask about his acting career. Not that he has regrets. Best-known for playing Mario “Salami” Pettrino in the classic CBS series The White Shadow more than 25 years ago, Van Patten, 47, regards his early career as “a great big adventure.” But long after he quit acting and became an award-winning director, his prior work often comes back to rib him.

“Now it seems to be a source of ball-breaking,” he says.

And Van Patten knows from ball-breaking. For a decade, he has served as one of the key capos behind The Sopranos, the HBO mob drama that ends its six-season run next month. His collaborative, often mischievous approach to shooting has won him the affection of actors and established him as a go-to episodic director for series like HBO’s Rome, Sex and the City and The Wire and the 2005 TNT miniseries Into the West.

While Van Patten no longer has the surfer’s mane he sported as Salami, the husky, Long Island accent still remains. Raised in Massapequa, N.Y., he wasn’t brought up in show business, despite being the half-brother of TV veteran Dick Van Patten. In 1977, after high school, he moved to Los Angeles where he apprenticed as a tile layer and hung out at Venice Beach.

But when one of Dick’s sons had to drop out of a play, Van Patten stepped in. He soon won roles in several after-school specials, and in 1978, he was cast in The White Shadow, Bruce Paltrow’s groundbreaking drama about an inner-city basketball team.

“It was like I’d robbed a bank or hit the jackpot,” Van Patten recalls. It was also the first of several breaks he attributes to Paltrow, who died of cancer in 2002. “I miss him as much as I miss my own father,” Van Patten says.

Breaking Into Directing

Roles in the cult favorite Class of 1984 and the short-lived martial-arts series The Master followed. But as his acting prospects dimmed and his interest waned, he decided to pursue directing. Rather than being “just another actor who wants to direct,” Van Patten quit acting in the early 1990s and dedicated himself to his work behind the camera. At Paltrow’s suggestion, he began hanging around production sets while working tile and contracting jobs.

One day, while on the set of Paltrow’s sitcom Home Fires, Van Patten recalls, “out of the blue, Bruce turns around and says, 'I’m going to give you a show. You’re ready.’”

Still, it would be another two years before the next opportunity came. “What I didn’t realize was that the Director’s Guild is littered with the bones of first-time directors,” he says. Again, it was Paltrow who hired Van Patten for his drama The Road Home and later recommended him in 1994 for the new series Touched by an Angel.

Van Patten hit his stride with Angel, eventually racking up some 30 episodes. He went on to direct hours for Homicide: Life on the Street and the action series The Sentinel, and in 1996, he met with David Chase while the veteran producer was building his staff for The Sopranos. After directing an episode during season one, Van Patten has helmed 20 more, including some that rank among the series’ most popular and critically hailed.

“To be honest, my résumé didn’t warrant hiring,” he says. “It must’ve been something he saw in the meeting or maybe that I’m from New York. I remember being at ease.”

A Genuine Ball-Breaker

Indeed, it is Van Patten’s ability to put others at ease—and his flair for practical jokes—that has made him beloved by many on the show.

“Tim’s directing is like a magic trick because you would think that absolutely nothing is getting done,” says actor Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano). She also recalls the time Van Patten scared the daylights out of her when he donned a bear costume while shooting an episode that featured a live bear.

Sopranos writer and frequent collaborator Terence Winter praises Van Patten’s handling of “some of the show’s most poignant moments and some of our most violent ones.” Van Patten not only understands the “ball-breaking” banter between Tony Soprano and his crew, adds Winter, “he is a ball-breaker.”

In addition to directing, Van Patten also came up with the idea for “The Pine Barrens,” one of the most famous Sopranos episodes, in which Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) get lost in the woods of southern New Jersey. The story grew out of a dream inspired by Van Patten’s childhood excursions with his father, a horseplayer who took him to the Pine Barrens between trips to the track.

Poor Boy’s Mentality

These days, Van Patten, his wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 8, divide their time between homes in Manhattan and Ormond Beach, Fla., where Van Patten opened a bar called Saints & Sinners, modeled after old New York saloons like McSorley’s.

Having worked 12 years straight, the director is adjusting to an unfamiliar role: taking a break. He may continue to work on other HBO series, but he is also eager to try his hand at a feature. “For the moment, I’m catching my breath,” he says. “I don’t want to rush into anything, which is my M.O.—the poor boy’s mentality.”

Nearly 30 years of show business ups and downs have taught Van Patten to appreciate his good fortune. “I just want to count my blessings, see what’s out there,” he says. And if all else fails, he adds, “I’ll do tile jobs again.”