Van Zandt prepared for role as ‘Sopranos’ Silvio

Musician and actor Steven Van Zandt, who stars as Silvio in HBO's dramatic series "The Sopranos" and hosts the weekly syndicated rock and roll radio show "Little Steven's Underground Garage," poses at his radio studio, Monday, March 27, 2006, in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
Musician and actor Steven Van Zandt, who stars as Silvio in HBO's dramatic series "The Sopranos" and hosts the weekly syndicated rock and roll radio show "Little Steven's Underground Garage," poses at his radio studio, Monday, March 27, 2006, in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)Louis Lanzano / AP

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/ Source: The Associated Press

Steven Van Zandt, who plays Tony's pompadoured consigliere on "The Sopranos," prepared for the role back when the series began with knowingness remarkable for a first-time actor.

"Little Steven," of course, was a career rock'n'roller: a performer and recording artist in his own right as well as a member of boyhood chum Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

But he transformed himself into Silvio Dante with the knack of a seasoned thespian.

On his head he swapped out his signature bandanna for a full-out coifed hairpiece. Clad himself in mob-certified finery. Packed on 50 pounds. "All the outside stuff," Van Zandt sums up.

"Then I wrote a biography of Silvio: Lifelong friend of Tony ... probably the only person who's not afraid of him and can be honest with him ... kind of the ambassador and diplomat of the family."

And along the way, Van Zandt nailed down a theory of acting: "We all have every single personality trait inside of us," he says. "The craft of acting is finding it, awakening it, and giving it off — inhabiting the particular characteristics in the script."

So that was it. Van Zandt, a novice in front of the cameras, had boldly claimed his place among a mafia of veterans (including James Gandolfini, who plays Tony).

It could have been intimidating. "But I am this OTHER guy," Van Zandt chortles, "and I am interacting with guys in THEIR characters. That made me fearless!"

Though seldom front-and-center, Silvio has been a cornerstone of "The Sopranos" since it premiered on HBO in January 1999. For viewers as well as for Tony, he's a trusty companion and truth-teller (sure, he's a brute, but he's got more heart and honor than his paisans).

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Somehow, Silvio helps normalize Tony for the audience. If he loves and understands Tony, Tony must therefore merit our support. For a series where characters are painfully dispensable, Silvio is as vital as anyone in Tony's world.

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And especially now. Alliances are eroding and tensions are mounting as the series barrels toward its finish next season. ("The Sopranos" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT.)

"Silvio has a certain clarity that I admire and envy, and wish I had more of in real life," Van Zandt, 55, says with obvious affection, then confides, "It's easier to play him than to be me. It's a mental vacation. It's my meditation. God, am I gonna miss that!"

Escape on the "Sopranos" set is welcome, he explains, as a respite from what he calls his real, 10-hours-a-day job. Or should he call it his sacred mission? Turns out Little Steven is a way-cool zealot, a wavy-gravy crusader bent on saving rock'n'roll.

His two-hour weekly radio ministry is "Little Steven's Underground Garage," which he programs, hosts and syndicates to 200 markets for a flock of more than a million. (Check the very cool Web site for local station and time.)

His overarching gospel: Radio today makes no room for garage rock. Constrictive formats squeeze out promising rookies as well as bands that made their bones decades ago.

What does Van Zandt mean by garage rock? "The Rolling Stones are the archetype," he says. "Classic singles? `Louie Louie' by the Kingsmen, 'Gloria' by Them. Just picture that in your mind and you got it."

"Underground Garage" reflects Van Zandt's unified field theory as he celebrates Cream, Gene Vincent, The Yardbirds, the New York Dolls, the Who, the Ramones, Bo Diddly — all part of rock's standard repertoire — plus up-and-comers you never heard of until Little Steven's show.

"We've introduced 120 new bands in the last four years," he says proudly, counting among them Jet, the Hives and the Strokes.

Cool and avuncular, Little Steven is a man who knows rock literally inside and out. On "Underground Garage," he throws a weekly rock seminar and dance party.

A recent edition displays his fastidiously freewheeling approach. Themed to April 15th tax-time, the playlist included the Beatles' "Taxman," the Drifters' "Money Honey," "Catch Us If You Can" by the Dave Clark Five, and, from an emerging group he likes, Soundtrack of Our Lives, "Dow Jones." Plus a couple dozen more songs spanning 50 years.

"After `The Sopranos' first season, and the Springsteen E Street Band reunion, I figured I had some celebrity capital for a minute, and I said, `Let me use it to put rock'n'roll back on the radio.' And, sure enough, everybody turned me down.

"We fought for a year, then started out with 25 stations," in April 2002. Even now, with a robust audience (plus two networks he programs for Sirius satellite radio), "it's still a war," he says. "An absolute revolution. And we could use another couple of sponsors."

Van Zandt has defied the current scheme in radio and the music industry in general: demographically based targeting, with systematic shunning of the past apart from certain narrowly contrived "oldies" formats.

No good. Rock is our common cultural heritage, he argues, meant for savoring and nourishing and passing along.

"You got to cover the essentials, what's cool, and what you want the next generation to get a chance to hear. This isn't being nostalgic. You get an 11-year-old and play `Well-Respected Man' by the Kinks or `Satisfaction' by the Stones, and guess what? That kid feels the same way WE did. Nothing changes!"

In his midtown Manhattan headquarters — a very cool loft space with rec-room amenities where he and his small staff work, and where his show originates — Van Zandt appears happily at home. His related ventures include "Underground Garage" band festivals, a record label and a dreamed-of TV series.

Would other projects lure him outside these walls?

"If a great script comes along with a character I feel I can do, I certainly would consider it," he says, looking beyond his "Sopranos" run. "But this could be the one and only acting I ever do."

What about the ham in him?

"I don't have enough," Van Zandt laughs. "I could use a little more. I wish I missed performing more. But I don't have that need to be on the screen. Or on stage. I should do it more. I'm good at it, and people like when I do it. I enjoy it when I'm there, I really do. But you have to practically drag me.

"I'm attracted to gaps," he tries to explain. "If I see something out of balance, I have a compulsion to fix it. There's a gap here, on the radio, and I have to fill it."