The actor, who plays Bobby Bacala, says he made "lifelong friendships" on the show

By Monica Rizzo
Updated April 06, 2007 02:15 PM

In the final episodes of The Sopranos, Steve Schirripa brings new energy to soft-spoken Bobby Bacala. We don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say he’s nobody’s lackey anymore. Bada bing!

In real life, Schirripa, a Brooklyn native, keeps busy by writing books, hosting Spike TV’s Casino Cinema and serving as a guest correspondent for The Tonight Show. He lives in New York City with his wife Laura and their daughters Bria, 15, and Ciara, 11.

Schirripa, 49, talked to PEOPLE about the show’s end, its passionate fan following and what’s next. (The Sopranos’ sixth and final season premieres April 8 on HBO.)

This season we see a new Bobby, don’t we?
Yes, you do. Bobby has gotten a little closer to Tony [Soprano] and he’s kind of stepped up a little. I don’t want to give anything away, but you know the higher up you get, the more they give you to do and the more chance you have to get into trouble.

When you joined the show in its second season, acting wasn’t your profession, was it?
It was kind of like a hobby. It’s a lot easier to get a role when you’re not worried about if the bills are being paid. [Schirripa was the entertainment director at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.] I was a 40-year-old fat Italian guy with two kids living in Las Vegas and then I get a great role on probably the greatest show in TV history.

How did it feel going into this season knowing the end was near?
It’s always bittersweet. [The season premiere party] was an incredible night. There were thousands of people. What TV show could fill up Radio City? It was crazy and it was great but it was very sad. We were all backstage and it sunk in. Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) said, “It’s really over.” We’d all kind of been in denial. We all met backstage, just the cast, and it was very sad.

Is the cast close?
Never once in my eight years on the show did I ever say, ‘Oh God, I have to work tomorrow.’ We’ve been through new babies and marriages and divorces – very much like a family. What I took away from the show was some really good lifelong friendships.

Who are you going to miss the most from the show?
Me and Michael Imperioli are very close friends. Dominic and I worked a lot together in the early years. He was a huge help to me in the beginning, so I’ll always have a gentle place in my heart for him.

You’ve also had success as an author with your Goomba series.
The books have been great. We wrote the first book, The Goomba’s Guide to Life, and it’s my stories growing up in Brooklyn. The Goomba’s Diet Book is going paperback. It’s not a diet, per se – look at me! But it’s diet of family, friends, food, love. We give out a few diet tips, like if you feel like you’re putting on a few pounds, find fatter friends. Or if you need to get motivated to run, don’t pay your bookie for three weeks!

What kind of reaction do you get from fans?
You get 75-year-old little old ladies to 9-year-old kids! It’s amazing. You get some mob guys that come and give you a suggestion how to play it. Michael Imperioli once had somebody give him a suggestion how he should choke a guy from behind – and they were serious!