Just when Steven Van Zandt thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
The former Sopranos co-star was pitched a new TV series idea a few years ago about a Mafioso who enters the federal witness protection program, trading the mean streets of New York for, of all places, the icy fjords of Norway.
“I had several thoughts at once,” Van Zandt recalls. “First of all, I thought, ‘Oh, geez, I played a gangster for 10 years. I probably shouldn’t do this.’ But second, I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea this is.’
“There are not that many great ideas in the world. When you hear one, you had better recognize it, and I recognized it immediately.”
That’s how Van Zandt — aka Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, aka Silvio Dante of The Sopranos — became Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano in Lilyhammer, an under-the-radar hit on Netflix. The eight-episode second season is available on Netflix beginning Friday.
The show is funny, violent, bawdy and insightful.
Frank, now living under the alias of Johnny Henriksen after ratting out his New York boss, chose to relocate to Lillehammer — or as he pronounces it, Lilyhammer — because he had fond memories of seeing the Norwegian town on TV during the 1994 Winter Olympics.
He imagined he would be living in a paradise of “clean air, fresh white snow and gorgeous broads” where he can start anew.
New life, new victims
But the reality of moving to Norway is different from what he expected, as Frank/Johnny quickly reverts to his old ways and becomes a one-man crime wave in a community where there is no crime.
Imagine a TV series in which Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone of The Godfather launches a brutally ruthless criminal operation in a land of guileless innocents, recruiting some of the unworldly locals to serve as his muscle. That’s essentially what you get with Lilyhammer.
“This is just a perfect premise,” Van Zandt says. “We not only have a wonderful fish-out-of-water story, but we also have fun with these cultural differences of the character experiencing Norway the way he does. It’s an interesting thing to explore.”
In the second season, Frank’s life in Lillehammer gets more complicated. While balancing marriage and fatherhood with running a criminal operation, he faces new threats when his former mob associates find out he is still alive.
“That leads to a whole interesting new dynamic,” Van Zandt says, “where he’s no longer the invader, but is being invaded.”
The first season was a hit in early 2012 on Norwegian television, with nearly a fifth of the country’s population tuning in.
Then it became the first original series available on Netflix’s Internet streaming-video service, predating such acclaimed Netflix originals as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.
“It’s been an amazing journey to watch, in just two years, how Netflix has become this powerhouse right up there with HBO,” Van Zandt says. “We were very proud to be the first.”
Filming a TV series in Norway, where customs are different and weather is difficult, created many moments of culture shock for Van Zandt.
“It was actually perfect, though, because whatever the character was going through in the show, I was going through myself as the actor. I found myself adapting to things that I never would have thought possible, such as roaming outside for 10 hours in 10-below-zero weather.”
Van Zandt, who’s also a producer on Lilyhammer, learned that there’s a very different filmmaking work ethic in Norway.
“There are much lower budgets,” he says. “I had the only trailer in the history of Norwegian TV, so everybody shared it. And the craft service table was, like, a box of apples and a pot of coffee. Gone were those little basic things we take for granted as prima donnas and divas in the American system.
“As an actor, you realize how much you’re pampered when you go over to Norway.”