Like Tony Soprano, David Chase is dealing with a lot of anxiety and pressure this season.

But one thing "The Sopranos" creator doesn't need to worry about is whether fans upset at the 18-month wait between seasons will say the show is "dead to me." If a brief, appetizing highlight reel shown to TV critics here is any indication, "The Sopranos" instantly will make annoyed HBO viewers forgetaboutit.

"Who is hungry?" asked desperate housewife Carmela, before several scenes in the reel featured Tony and his friends and family stuffing themselves with pasta and a variety of food.

The nation's critics assembled here certainly were hungry for even the tiniest morsel about the March 12 start of the sixth season during an interview with Chase and cast members James Gandolfini (Tony), Carmela (Edie Falco), Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).

Chase initially was about as forthcoming as a mobster taking the Fifth Amendment but eventually he gave starved critics a few nourishing details.

* The first part of the 12-episode final season will end in June, there will be a six-month delay before the final eight episodes will begin airing in January 2007. The series will definitely end in March 2007.

* The mood around Tony and the gang this season will be "kind of disquieted, sort of rattled, not feeling things are going well."

"(The season) is mostly keyed off of the fact that Johnny Sack (Tony's rival) has been arrested and is facing a large RICO trial for murder," said Chase. "And people have the chance to see a possible potential future for themselves and it has a ripple effect just like psychologically, I think, it would."

* It is unlikely there will be a much-rumored movie to follow the series finale.

"I think what we'll be doing in (the final 20 episodes) would be that movie," said Chase.

* The guest star list includes Julianna Margulies ("ER") as a real estate agent, Hal Holbook and Ben Kingsley.

"Ben Kingsley plays Ben Kingsley," said Chase.

Cornered after another HBO session in which he stars in a movie, Kingsley said he agreed to be on the show because he thought the role was "delightful, witty and extremely-well written."

No one will ever accuse Gandolfini of being "witty." He generally approaches interviews like Tony approaches conversations with the FBI. He's cautious. But by his own uncomfortable standards, Gandolfini was verbose during and after the interview. He sees the end of his signature role as having plusses and minuses.

"It is a dark, dark world," said Gandolfini, who was entirely dressed in black. "If you're going to be in a dark world, I can't think of any better one to be in. I still think I'm very lucky to be in it."

"It does feel like the end this time," added Gandolfini, who like much of the cast was a relative unknown when the show began. "You learn so much about success, money and celebrity. It's been an incredible life lesson."

Asked if Tony had grown over the years, Gandolfini said: "Honestly, I think it is the changes that age brings. You slow down a little bit. I don't think you are as quick to explode in certain cases."

None of the actors know how Tony's life lesson will end and Chase isn't saying if viewers will feel the whole story has been told or if the characters are just going to go on.

"The truth is both, really," said Chase. "Obviously they're all not going to go up in a nuclear cloud."

"That would be good," said Gandolfini, flashing a huge smile.

After the session, Chase admitted the pressure to have the series go out with a figurative bang is enormous.

"It is horrible," said Chase. "On some level that sort of is the downside of being a well-liked show, especially this show. We're in the public eye so much. We get reviewed every Monday. At the same time you can't quarrel with that. It is great that people take an interest. But yeah, it is a lot of pressure."

He didn't envision pressure like this when the series began airing after the first 13 episodes were finished before any of them aired.

"We were in this little cocoon, none of us ever thought the show would be anything," said Chase. "We thought everybody would not like it and say 'another mob show, more Mafia stuff, ohmygod, this unlikable character.' We had no idea that people would like it. So the trick is always to try to put ourselves back mentally in that same cocoon. Most of the time it is easy but once in a while, at a thing like this, you start to realize ... 'Wow.' "

Gandolfini doesn't worry about the need for a "wow" ending. "I don't know what the word is -- we've sown our oats," said Gandolfini. "So what it is, it is."

Imperioli doesn't know what it is, either, but he has his suspicions.

"I have a feeling most of these characters aren't going to wrap up too well," said Imperioli. "I don't mean dead. Some dead. I mean I don't think there are going to be too many happy endings, just knowing David's sensibility."

That analysis sounds dead-on to me.