Michael A. Lipton
April 16, 2001 12:00 PM

So what’s it like having Tony Soprano for a father? To Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who plays feisty daughter Meadow to James Gandolfini’s gruff New Jersey Mob boss Tony on The Sopranos, life on the set sometimes imitates art. Gandolfini, it seems, likes to lean on even the actors who play Sigler’s boyfriends. “Listen,” he told one, “you don’t slip her the tongue. You don’t mess with her! You don’t do anything!”

But there are also Father Knows Best moments. “One day I was feeling really stressed about college,” says Sigler, 19, who was then attending New York University. “I had a midterm in the morning and then filming and a photo shoot in the afternoon. I was so overwhelmed I started crying. And Jim just said, ‘Everybody stop. Leave her alone.’ And he took me in a corner and sat and talked with me. He was really compassionate and warm.”

Nowadays Sigler not only has a surrogate father in Gandolfini but a fairy godmother in Eartha Kitt, her costar in a touring musical production of Cinderella. “She’s growing into being a very excellent actress,” says Kitt, as well as a budding model, having signed in December with the Wilhelmina agency.

And next fall Sigler, who put her NYU studies on hold after one semester to focus on her career, will release her first CD—a coup she says she owes to her Sopranos role. Last season, she says, “there was a scene where I was singing TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ with my friend while we were making grilled cheese sandwiches. Someone called my manager and asked about my singing.” That someone turned out to be an executive with Edel North America, a new German-based label that signed Sigler to do a pop album titled Here to Heaven.

Sigler, who sings a few songs in Spanish on the CD, attributes its Latin flavor to her mother’s Cuban heritage. Both Connie, 51, a home-maker, and Steve Sigler, 52, the founder of the 40,000-member Men’s Senior National Amateur Baseball League, encouraged their daughter’s showbiz aspirations. Growing up in Jericho, N.Y., with two older brothers, Adam, 27, a stockbroker, and Brian, 24, a law student, Jamie-Lynn started dance classes at 3. By 9 she had landed the role of Marta in a community theater production of The Sound of Music. Lead roles in The Wizard of Oz and Annie followed. “I knew how serious she was,” says her mother, “because she continued to get straight A’s [at Jericho High].”

She was all set to go to summer camp in 1997 when she decided to take a chance and audition for the role of Meadow. Sigler nailed the part and shot the pilot episode, but by the time filming began on the series a year later, “it was hard to even recognize her,” says Edie Falco, who plays her mother, Carmela. The 5’6″ Sigler had weighed 120 lbs., but her weight had now dropped to 95, mainly as a result of compulsive exercising that lasted up to three hours a day. “She told me how she hated it,” says Robert Her, 16, who plays kid brother Anthony Jr., “how it took her over and how she used to wake up with nightmares every night.” Worse, says Sigler, “suicide was crossing my mind, and that terrified me.” Then, in April 1998, she told her parents, “I have an eating disorder. Please get me help!” After two years of twice-weekly visits with a nutritionist and a psychiatrist, Sigler is now back to her former weight. As a spokeswoman for the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, “I get tons of mail,” she says. “Most of it is from young people, and they just say ‘Thank you.’ ” Her advice to teenage girls: “Embrace what makes you different.”

Sigler, who is currently unattached and has moved into her own one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, is eating healthily and exercising three times a week. But last June she had another medical scare: Hospitalized with Lyme disease, she was paralyzed from the waist down for five days. “Fortunately, Jamie’s disease cleared up with antibiotics,” says Falco. “We were all thrilled.”

Last year, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in L.A., Sigler experienced another kind of paralysis when Dylan McDermott of The Practice walked over and told the bedazzled actress, “I have to tell you, I’m such a fan.” That was nice, but it’s a good thing he didn’t get too close. Tony wouldn’t have liked that.

Michael A. Lipton

Sue Miller in New York City

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