Remembering Gandolfini: Local businessman was early 'Sopranos' actor

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 04:43 PM

Sal Ruffino has the distinction of being one of the actors “whacked” by James Gandolfini. Ruffino played Chucky Signore during three episodes of the first season of the HBO series “The Sopranos.”

He remembers when the series’ writers gave him the script for what would be his final episode, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano.” Ruffino had no idea what the writers’ plans were. He started reading the script for the episode, and saw that Tony Soprano, played by Gandolfini, would take him out. “Oh my God, the party’s over! I was beside myself,” Ruffino joked, as he showed clips from his “Sopranos” episodes.
Funeral services for Gandolfini, who died last week of a heart attack, will be held Thursday in New York, and Ruffino will attend the service.
Tuesday, Ruffino reminisced about working with Gandolfini. “He’s a giving actor … a teddy bear, just like Danny Aiello, a big guy with a big heart,” Ruffino said. While Gandolfini had lots of influence on the show, he would share ideas with all the actors, and work with them on ideas for scenes. “We chatted about that scene and how we were going to block it,” Ruffino said of the scene in which Tony kills Chucky. After filming of that episode, Gandolfini “came and put his arm around me. I said, ‘Brother, I hate to leave,’and wished him continued success.”
“[Gandolfini] became an overnight success, but he had worked for it,” Ruffino said. “The Sopranos” began in 1999 and continued until 2007.
Acting is not Ruffino’s day job, and “The Sopranos” was not his first acting role. Currently, he owns Premier Transportation, a van and limo service. (His business card is a sendup of his “Sopranos” persona: He pledges superb service from his staff “or they get WHACKED!!!”) He has been a restaurateur for many years, owned Sal’s Pizza, and also works in real estate.
He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had his first exposure to acting as an extra in the 1975 movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” He and his brother-in-law were driving down a major thoroughfare when police cars began whizzing past. They followed the cars and witnessed the bank robbery and hostage scene that became the basis for “Dog Day Afternoon.” Weeks later, he was headed from one of his restaurants to Brooklyn and saw a sign seeking extras for “Dog Day Afternoon.” Ruffino was cast as a police officer.
“Here I am an extra in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and I get to see all these actors and interact with Al Pacino … on a street in Brooklyn, New York, where I was raised. I was beside myself,” Ruffino said.
His next opportunity came when he was in Durham operating his pizza place in South Square Mall. He heard that the film “Once Around” was looking for extras. He made a point of showing up early to the casting table, which was to be set up at South Square. He came too early, and went back home, thinking he would not venture into acting again, until his daughter Danielle, then a student at Jordan High School, told him the filmmakers “are looking for Italians.”
They went to audition as extras, and a member of the casting crew “kept pointing to my daughter and myself,” Ruffino said. Someone spoke up and told the crew: “He owns the pizza place upstairs. These are real Italians.” Cast as a wedding guest rather than an extra, Ruffino was given lines, allowing him to get his Screen Actors Guild Card. Danny Aiello, one of the featured actors in “Once Around,” became one of the links that led to his “Sopranos” roles years later.
The Aiello connection led to his role as Angelo in the 1991 film “29th Street,” a film in which Tony Sirico played Chink Fortunado. Years later, Sirico, who played Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri in “The Sopranos,” told him about the new series. Ruffino expressed interest, got a call, took an overnight plane to New York, where he eventually got the part of Chucky Signore.
Ruffino also appears in the episodes “Nobody Knows Anything” and “Isabella.” Chucky was the second character, after Sal Bonpensiero (played by Vincent Pastore) that Tony Soprano knocked off himself. During these episodes, Tony has multiple issues to confront. He is seeing a psychiatrist because of his troubled relationship with his mother (who ordered a hit on him). Soprano also is trying to determine who is spying on him and informing on him, and who has ordered the hit on him that failed.
Tony is in a power rivalry with his Uncle Junior (played by Dominic Chianese), the elder member of the family. When Tony realizes Uncle Junior’s allies tried to have him killed, he decides Signore is the most likely to try and finish the job next, and as a pre-emptive measure, fills Signore with bullets as he is preparing to go boating. Signore rests at the bottom of the river for the rest of the series. All told, Ruffino was on the set for “The Sopranos” for about a month, he said.
Now Ruffino is promoting his transportation company, but he has some new head shots  and would like to do some more acting, maintaining his part-time status. “I realized early on a lot of actors don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Ruffino said. “I’ve always treated this as a hobby. I’ve had a very successful entrepreneurial career,” he said.