Nov. 24 (UPI) -- The strength and complexity of female characters on The Sopranos was a prominent theme during a panel discussion with the show's actresses at this weekend's fan convention in New Jersey.
The iconic mob drama initially ran 1999-2007 and focused primarily on male Mafiosos in New Jersey and New York, but cast members Maureen Van Zandt, Kathrine Narducci and Sofia Milos all played intriguing supporting characters who could hold their own with the men in their lives.
"I grew up in New Jersey in a very, very Italian Catholic family, so the women always ran the show. I've never known any other way," Van Zandt, who played mob wife Gabriella Dante, told the crowd at SopranosCon at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, N.J., on Saturday. "The women on the show were very typical of what I grew up with. So, it just felt like home to me."
"She was so brilliant and we all wish she could have stayed on the show and stayed around much longer," Van Zandt said, giving as an example an unforgettable moment when Livia tells her adult son she feels so useless, he should just stab her in the heart with the knife he is using to carve up a dinner ham.
"Everyone thinks of the Italian mother or grandmother as being this warm, sweet, loving person and she showed that other side of an Italian woman that does exist. The dynamic between the two of them was just so incredible," Van Zandt said.
Fans frequently tell her their favorite Gabriella scene is when she called out the rudeness of a Catholic priest who embarrassed her and her friends at a church luncheon.
"I get how happy they are that I told Father Phil off," she said, referring to what people most want to talk to her about.
"My character was the boss of the household," Narducci said, referring to Charmaine Bucco, who along with her husband Artie owned a restaurant where the gangsters, their childhood friends, liked to dine.
"Artie couldn't make a move without me, so I felt like I was pretty strong on the show. I was the only one that didn't really want to be involved with the mob and I'm also the only one that really ever really -- of the women -- that would always confront Tony and have no problem with it," Narducci said.
To prepare to play Annalisa Zucca -- the female don Tony and the Sopranos crew does business with in Naples, Italy -- Milos researched the history of women gangsters.
"In Naples, the women take over if the man is in prison or he dies," Milos said. "There are some extraordinary women, just on the wrong side of the law."
The actress dismissed criticism that the show depicted negative stereotypes of Italians, and said her small, but pivotal role on The Sopranos led to a lot more work and recognition for her.
"It actually changed my career for the better where a lot of women were very grateful. I think that women have been suppressed and oppressed for centuries because of religion, because of marriage, because of culture," Milos said. "But you try to harm the child of a mother and you will know how strong a woman is."
The two-day convention attracted about 10,000 fans a day on Saturday and Sunday.
Timed to the 20th anniversary of the show's debut, the event included appearances by dozens of cast members from the show, including Dominic Chianese, Drea de Matteo, Tony Sirico, Federico Castelluccio, Burt Young, Jerry Adler, Vincent Pastore, Vincent Curatola, Al Sapienza, Matt Servitto, Artie Pasquale and Dan Grimaldi.
Goodfellas alum Tony Darrow brought his stand-up comedy act to the stage, Chianese sang Italian ballads and the British rock band Alabama 3 sang "Woke Up This Morning," the theme song from The Sopranos.
Fans lined up to have their photos taken with the stars, as well as inside recreations of Dr. Melfi's psychiatry office, the snow-covered woods of the Pine Barrens and a booth from the restaurant Holstein's featured in the series finale. There were also poker games and a cannoli eating contest.
Huge murals showing Gandolfini as Tony were set up throughout the convention center and most of the celebrities in attendance took a moment at some point to publicly pay homage to their beloved co-star. His wife Deborah Lin and 7-year-old daughter Liliana were also at the convention, organizers said.
Castelluccio, who played Furio Giunta on the show and helped organize the convention, credits the enduring appeal of The Sopranos to the way it humananized people typically vilified on screen, mainly by showing how they interact with members of their family.
"The writing has so many levels to it. It's very deep writing and when we read these characters, we realized that something great was in that writing and we were lucky enough to be handed those words and to bring them to life," the actor told UPI in an interview on Friday.
The show inspired a wave of TV projects such as Breaking Bad, The Shield and Sons of Anarchy that centered on antiheroes.
"There had never been a show like The Sopranos on television prior to The Sopranos," Castelluccio said. "You're not able to duplicate it. It's like a great work of art. The original is always the best."
The actor was happy to celebrate the show's 20-year anniversary with old friends and die-hard Sopranos fans, but still misses Gandolfini, who died of heart attack at age 51 in 2013.
"The biggest hole in our hearts is Jim not being here," he said.