When John Turturro was offered a starring role in the HBO limited series “The Night Of,” he was torn.
For starters, Turturro, a veteran movie actor, had done relatively little television and was not a huge fan of the form. And when he learned that this role once belonged to James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos,” he said two words to himself: “Oh no.”
“I was friends with him,” he said in a recent interview. “I went to his wedding. I went to his funeral.”
Gandolfini appeared in the pilot for “The Night Of” and was an executive producer for the show, a slow-boiling murder mystery. It was formerly known as “Criminal Justice” and is based on a BBC series of the same name. In June 2013, a month after HBO gave it a green light, Gandolfini died suddenly on a trip to Italy. Robert De Niro was selected to replace him but backed out after a scheduling conflict.
There was something that made Turturro uncomfortable about it all. He met Gandolfini in 1992 through his cousin, the actress Aida Turturro, who later played Tony Soprano’s sister. Gandolfini starred in Turturro’s passion project, the 2007 film “Romance & Cigarettes,” which he wrote and directed, and the two vowed to work together again.
When Turturro finally saw the pilot, it was a relief. Gandolfini was barely in it.
“I didn’t know how big a part he had done,” Turturro said. “Say if he had done, like, the whole thing, I would have been ‘Ahhh, oh my God, I have to erase that from my memory.’ I had nothing really to erase.”
Turturro wrote to Gandolfini’s widow, and signed on.
And this opened the door for something that has happened only occasionally in this celebrated actor’s long career: Turturro, 59, got a lead role in a high-profile project.
“The Night Of,” an eight-part series that has its premiere at 9 p.m. July 10 on HBO, centers on the murder of a young Upper West Side woman and a Pakistani-American college student who is charged with the crime.
The series explores the intricacies and flaws of New York’s criminal justice system and at times can feel reminiscent of the real-life stories in the first season of the podcast “Serial” or the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.”
“The Night Of” was created by Steven Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for “Schindler’s List,” and the author Richard Price.
Turturro plays John Stone, a low-rent lawyer who is trying to keep that student out of jail. What Stone lacks in a big salary or star clients — he’s a precinct crawler who usually works on small cases involving prostitution or drug offenses — he makes up for with street smarts. Soon he’s investigating the murder in his spare time.
Even after the death of Gandolfini, “we all felt ‘The Night Of’ was very much a project worth pursuing,” said Kary Antholis, the president of HBO’s miniseries unit. “We had a compelling first episode. The second episode had been written, and it was extremely strong, too. After Jim passed away, we grieved, it was a terrible loss. But after a period of time, we consulted with his family and his representatives, and everyone was in agreement that ‘The Night Of’ ought to go forward.”
HBO executives are hopeful that the show will be a hit with critics and viewers and will provide a counterargument to the perception that the network is in a bit of a drama drought.
Though Turturro has little in common with the world-weary lawyer — the character suffers from a crippling bout of eczema on his feet and has a Dr. Zizmor-like subway ad with a cheesy slogan: “No Fee ‘Til You’re Free” — they have at least one thing that connects them: They’re both New York characters.
Over a recent lunch at Bar Pitti in the West Village, Turturro’s trademark Queens accent was on display as he chatted breezily with the wait staff and took a reporter through the menu item by item, translating from Italian. Dressed in a fitted gray T-shirt, he had taken the subway there from his home in Park Slope.
For this role, Turturro took his natural voice and went even bigger: a New York-y accent on steroids.
“Matter of fact, the way I talked was more of a guy from the ‘70s,” he said. “If you look at the old ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ or look at how Jerry Stiller and Walter Matthau and all those guys talked, they have a New York sound that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
“I knew guys like that from my dad’s generation,” he continued. “Salt of the earth. One of these guys who you’d underestimate.”
When Turturro finished reading the scripts for the new series, he watched the pilot with Gandolfini and saw him sporting a big beard but saying little. (In the slightly retooled episode, Turturro has a larger role; the rest of the pilot was shot in 2012.)
“He was still James being this human guy, but I don’t know if he figured out what he was going to do,” Turturro said.
As far as being given a role that once belonged to Gandolfini and De Niro, he said he was thrilled to be on that shortlist.
“That’s how life is,” he said. “How many times were people going to do a great part, and another person replaces them?”
“And that I’m in the conversation?” he continued. “I’m happy about that.”