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'Sopranos' Writer Discusses Career

Kessler draws crowd of fans, aspiring writers

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala, Crimson Staff Writer

Hundreds of summer school students mobbed the Science Center on Monday to hear Todd A. Kessler '94 field questions about his career as a writer and producer for HBO's "The Sopranos."

In the presentation sponsored by the Harvard Summer School Writing Program, Kessler also screened one of this year's episodes of the hit cable television show.

"There's no one path to take [into show business]," said Kessler, who did a special concentration in dramatic literature and playwriting as an undergraduate and wrote a screenplay for his senior thesis.

"I went to New York after college planning to be a bartender or waiter while I wrote," he added.

He soon got a job working as a script reader for director Spike Lee. But when he was offered a full-time position with Lee, Kessler turned it down.

"I told him my heart's not in it, reading scripts full time," Kessler said. "He said, 'You have something on your plate that's better than working for me?'"

Kessler said he wanted to go into screenwriting, so Lee hired him to write a screenplay. Kessler took him up on the offer and adapted his senior thesis into a screenplay.

After his work with Lee, Kessler went into television, becoming a writer for the short-lived science fiction series "The Visitor" on Fox and then NBC's "Providence."

Kessler, who said he is still puzzled by the success of "Providence," showed a glimpse of his future writing interests when he tried to incorporate a mafia story line into an episode of the show.

But Kessler was stopped by network restrictions--an NBC attorney informed him that the words "mafia" or "mob" could not be used on air on NBC.

Kessler, however, was given the opportunity to write about the crime underworld when he was hired for the new HBO series "The Sopranos."

He said the freedom that cable networks allow has given him more creative control over his writing.

"There's just no censorship," Kessler said. "We tell the stories we're interested in."

The show portrays the everyday lives of a fictional mob family from New Jersey.

"These are bad people," Kessler said of the show's characters. "But if you put them in a certain light, they can become appealing and vulnerable."

According to Kessler, the show receives input from both sides of the crime spectrum, from law enforcement officials to former mobsters in the Witness Protection Program, in an attempt to make the plots as realistic as possible.

"People in the mafia try to give us advice, which can be a little disconcerting," he said.

Though the four writers on the show often work on certain episodes independently, Kessler said, everyone is kept informed about the direction of story lines.

And the writing schedule is more demanding than anything Kessler has ever experienced--causing him to quickly change habits he practiced in college.

"I would wake up at five in the morning to write a paper due at five that afternoon," Kessler said. "I realized I can't do that anymore."

"The Sopranos" has drawn rave reviews from television critics and viewers in its two years on the air.

An estimated 13,000 people lined up for an open casting call in Harrison, New Jersey on Saturday. Two days earlier the show had received 18 Emmy nominations, tying it with NBC's first-year drama "The West Wing" for the most of any show this year.

Kessler himself has received two nominations, one for Best Dramatic Writing, and one as a producer for Best Drama Series.

"The Sopranos" hopes to fare better at this year's Emmy awards--the show received 16 Emmy nominations last year, but only took home four awards--and a new voting system may increase the shows' chances. Judges can now watch videotapes of the nominees at home instead of gathering at one place.

The previous system tended to draw older judges, who often objected to the violence and language of cable programming.

"Anything that potentially opens up the voting process is a definitely a good thing," Kessler said.

--Jesse M. Molina contributed to the reporting of this article.

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