'Jackie Jr.' far from dead at Bohager's


IT'S ANOTHER glorious evening of big hair and cleavage under the white dome at Bohager's, where the Bud Light flows like there's no tomorrow and so many people smoke you wonder if any of the surgeon general's reports on tobacco ever made it to Fells Point.

Right now, I am shoehorned into the VIP room with about 75 others for a meet-and-greet with studly Jason Cerbone, who played mobster wanna-be Jackie Aprile Jr. in "The Sopranos," the hit HBO series about Jersey wise-guys and their existential angst.

I say "played" because Jackie Jr. got whacked in the season finale a couple of weeks ago, taking a bullet to the back of the head and falling face down into the frozen ground outside a grimy tenement.

As a general rule of thumb, the death of one's character in an enormously popular TV show is not a good career move.

But judging from the crowd swarming around Cerbone - most of the people here are winners of a local radio promotion - Jackie Jr.'s rub-out has not hurt him in the popularity ratings.

The room is dominated by young women in their early 20s with frosted hair and Chiclets smiles, wearing tight jeans and teetering around on spike heels. I feel old. I mean real old, Franklin Delano Roosevelt-old, like I should be in a rocker with a shawl across my knees.

As a couple of security gorillas try to maintain order, the women elbow their way up to have their picture taken with Cerbone as 35 mm cameras flash and digital cameras whir.

"It's like an angry mob up there!" says Amy Cipolloni, 23, of Parkville, who is here with two friends. "Well, not angry - pushy."

Yes, well, the dark-eyed, 23-year-old Cerbone, from all accounts, has that effect on women. Women of all ages, too. I strike up a conversation with Linda Grebeleski, who is 33 and lives in White Marsh and is an accountant for a law firm.

Grebeleski has been particularly energetic in throwing herself into the scrum surrounding Cerbone. "My two kids are home in bed!" she tells me, after finally emerging, triumphantly, with a snapshot of herself cheek-to-cheek with the smiling Cerbone.

All this fuss, I think, for a relative newcomer to "The Sopranos." Cerbone, it must be recalled, did not join the show as Jackie Jr. until the 12th episode of the second year.

But as the ambitious, marvelously sleazy son of a gunned-down "made" man, he soon became "The Sopranos" requisite hottie, even before beginning a sizzling relationship with Tony Soprano's daughter, Meadow, this season.

Unfortunately, Jackie Jr. also came up with this spectacularly bad idea: he and two buddies, wearing ski masks and brandishing shotguns, would burst in on a card game protected by the Soprano's family and rob the players.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

Pretty soon, a fat guy named Vito with sheer knee-high socks was creeping up behind Jackie Jr. with a .38 in his hand, instantly dispatching him from this mortal vale to the gates of hell.

After 20 minutes of posing for pictures, Jason Cerbone steps behind a long table and a line, directed by the gorillas, forms for his autograph.

Instantly, the line seems to stretch halfway to Canton. I take this time to worm my way over to Mike Esterman, an Annapolis promoter who's running this event.

Esterman, who is wearing a dark blazer, open-necked shirt and the look of the perpetually harried, is sweating from the heat radiated by the crowd and the hot overhead lights.

"It's been a phenomenal success," he says of the Cerbone meet-and-greet. "I was looking for some way to bring Hollywood to Baltimore."

Then he turns to a blonde behind him in a tight black dress and a neckline that ends somewhere near her shoes and says: "Sweetheart, get me a drink, would you?"

At dinner with Cerbone earlier in Little Italy, Esterman says: "Everyone was recognizing him on the streets. A couple of kids kept yelling: 'Jackie! Jackie!' "

The autograph line moves at a glacial pace. But Cerbone himself seems unruffled, and strangely unsweaty, too, smiling and greeting each person before meticulously signing the promotional photograph thrust at him.

He remains smiling even when a woman playfully swats him on the side of the head and yells: "You dumb duck!"

Only she doesn't use the word "duck." What she uses is the word that sounds like duck, the one Tony Soprano used on Jackie all the time when he was smacking him around for being in a strip joint or just being stupid in general.

After 45 minutes or so, the autograph line is shut down so Cerbone can take a break. After posing and signing for 90 minutes in a hot, crowded room, what does a young, rising TV star relish most?

Right: an interview with the press.

Nevertheless, I stick out a meaty paw and give him my best real estate salesman smile and introduce myself.

Cerbone chats easily for a few minutes. He seems to be a genuinely nice man, pleasantly surprised at the good fortune bestowed on him by his "Sopranos" role.

"I gotta be thankful," he says, looking out at all the banished women, their noses pressed against the glass doors of the VIP room. "Life could be a lot worse than this."

Of his character getting whacked, he says: "It was sad for me on a personal level, because I got so close to the cast and the people are so great. But it needed to be done for the story, and I respect that."

Right now, he says, he's traveling back and forth to L.A., "reading a lot of scripts." He's a hot property, as is everyone who circles in the glittering orbit of "The Sopranos."

"It was great exposure for me," he says softly. "But your life kind of changes after that."

And with that, Cerbone takes a sip of his soft drink and stares out the glass doors once more, where the big hair and cleavage seem never-ending.

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