Edie Falco: From Side Man to Side Dish

Edie Falco: From Side Man to Side Dish Jane Pauley wrapped an interview earlier this year with: "Two things are nearly certain. 'The Sopranos' are not headed for a happy ending, and Edie Falco won't be waiting tables anymore." This is one reason why Pauley is in broadcasting, not prognosticating.

Jane Pauley wrapped an interview earlier this year with: "Two things are nearly certain. 'The Sopranos' are not headed for a happy ending, and Edie Falco won't be waiting tables anymore." This is one reason why Pauley is in broadcasting, not prognosticating.

Should she look around, Pauley would find — while Falco's small-screen alter ego, Carmela Soprano, soaks up some nerve-soothing R&R — the actress herself is spending this hiatus suited up for table service all over town. At the movies, she pours the Florida java in John Sayles's "Sunshine State," and, at the Belasco, she slings the hash in New York in the first Broadway production of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

Both jobs beat playing a waitress for real, which Falco did for the first 12 years of her 15-year acting career. "Isn't it ironic? The first three or four movies I did I played a waitress. I thought someone was playing a cruel joke, but it just so happened all these independent filmmakers I knew at SUNY Purchase were doing films on waitresses.

"Few people know waitressing as well as I do," confesses Falco, formerly of Formerly Joe's — but she won't be resorting to any old waitress tricks, since the play is pitched after hours, when two unexpected lovers go through post-coital revelries in the Moonstruck early ayem: Her Frankie waits not so much on tables as on the short-order cook, Johnny.

He's played by another Purchase person-for-hire, and blessed be the school tie that binds: "Stanley [Tucci] graduated Purchase before I got there, but he was the one who everyone talked about — the cool, idol type of guy. Every production that he did at school was somewhat mythical, so the whole idea that I'm getting to work with him now is crazy good fortune." Falco has herself to thank for this belated school reunion because she's a Urinetown groupie and made so many trips to the show that the producers, The Araca Group (members of which she had previously worked with on the film "Judy Berlin"), offered to star her on Broadway. Several titles were thrown around as a possible vehicle before everyone zeroed in on the McNally opus. "It was one of the first plays I saw in New York," recalls Falco. "I saw it Off-Broadway, and it blew my mind — a really profound theatrical experience. I thought, 'God! Nothing gets better than this!'"

Contrary to the course of most careers, theatre was the last medium to fall into place for Falco. Her director pals at Purchase got her off and running in low-budget features, and, before she knew it, she was the Ado Annie of the "indies," a girl who couldn't say no to independent filmmakers. In time, she found their stage equivalent Off-Broadway — a prestigious band of actors known as Naked Angels — and, when Marisa Tomei had to bow out of a group reading, Falco bowed in. She has a history of following Oscar winners into roles. Kathy Bates, the first Frankie of Frankie and Johnny, directed a failed TV pilot of "Fargo" in which Falco reprised Frances McDormand's quirky lady sheriff. It is one of several roles of law enforcement that have dotted her resume (a police sergeant on Fox's "New York Undercover," the wife of a blinded police officer on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," a prison guard on HBO's "Oz"). "For some reason, the television work tends toward the law stuff. The waitresses were early, and the law came later. I don't know if I've done more waitresses than policewomen. It's got to be neck-and-neck at this point."

The play that brought Falco full-force to the theatre — indeed, the only play she has ever done professionally — was Warren Leight's Tony-winning Side Man, which she started up at that Naked Angels reading, workshopped at New York Stage and Film and uncorked Off-Broadway at CSC. Brilliantly bolting from the starting gate, she brought great angst and a ferocious authenticity to the role of a jazzman's angry, alcoholic wife. The portrayal got her an Equity card and her first acting prize — a Theatre World Award for one of 1998's most conspicuous stage debuts.

It would have probably won her the Tony as well, but marriage to the mob interfered. On Christmas Eve of '98, she learned her cable pilot had been picked up for 13 episodes and its filming would prevent her from delivering Side Man on Broadway — this, after laboring over it for more than three years. "There were phone calls back and forth from HBO to the producers, trying to make them both happen, which, beyond being unacceptable by both parties, was also unrealistic," recalls Falco wistfully. "I do remember when things got down to the wire and we realized it was going to Broadway without me, Warren said to me, 'Well, just forget the TV show. Walk out on it.' And I came within inches of doing that. It was just TV, and who the hell knows what's going to happen with a series. I just desperately wanted to take Side Man to Broadway after all we'd been through."

As it happily turned out, Falco fell up. She eventually did make her Broadway debut in Side Man, replacing her pregnant replacement, and took the play to London. And the hit hitman series she elected to do instead — "The Sopranos" — is still running. It may have cost her the Tony, but she harvested a mass of consolation prizes, becoming the only actress ever to win the Emmy, the Golden Globe and the SAG Award all in the same year, for her performance of mob wife Carmela Soprano. Right now she's two Emmys deep into the portrayal, and it has given her the commercial marketability to return to Broadway a star.

—By George Maksian