Numerous sources have reported the death of James Gandolfini, film and TV actor known for his acclaimed, Emmy-winning, genre-defining lead role in The Sopranos. The news first broke on Deadline, which reported that Gandolfini "died suddenly in Italy after a suspected heart attack." That report was since corroborated by Variety, TMZ, and HitFix, among others, then confirmed by HBO, who said in a statement that the actor had been vacationing with his family in Rome at the time. Gandolfini was 51.
Prior to landing the role of the conflicted, panic attack-stricken mob boss Tony Soprano in David Chase’s landmark series, the New Jersey-bred, stage-trained Gandolfini had established himself in several films that played on his mix of hulking physicality and deceptively teddy-bearish demeanor. In Get Shorty, he literally played a man named Bear, a former stuntman who was pressed into criminal service, yet he remained both reasonable and likeable. In the previous year’s Terminal Velocity, he played off that duality as a seemingly milquetoast guy who turns out to be a Russian mobster. In 1996’s The Juror, he was a hitman, but a hitman with a heart—a performance that Roger Ebert singled out in his otherwise-scathing review by saying, “If the movie had been pitched at the level of sophistication and complexity that his character represents, it would have been a lot better.”
And most importantly to his future, he starred in 1993’s True Romance as Virgil, a vicious brute who shows no compunction about mercilessly beating Patricia Arquette’s character, yet who can’t help but express grudging admiration for her courage. Gandolfini’s monologue—in which he explains how his soul has been deadened to the point where he now kills people “just to watch their expression change”—is ghastly in subject, yet oddly intimate and even sympathetic, in a way that would soon underscore his most famous character.
Casting director Susan Fitzgerald certainly thought so. She reportedly sought out Gandolfini after seeing his work in True Romance, bringing him into the show that would forever become inseparable from Gandolfini’s performance. Across six seasons, viewers watched as Gandolfini made Tony Soprano—a man that, by all rights, they should both fear and hate—the most loveable antihero ever known. After all, Tony had ordinary people like them beaten and killed. He cheated on his wife relentlessly and without remorse, and reacted violently when she threatened to do the same to him. He murdered his best friends and even his own family members, if it made for good business. Time and again he lied to everyone, including himself. And yet, people loved Tony Soprano, because from the moment they saw him first playing with a family of ducks, he seemed like a gentle giant who just happened to step on an awful lot of people.
As Tony unburdened himself to his psychiatrist—sometimes honestly, sometimes not—David Chase strove to paint Tony Soprano as the modern man with universal problems: kids he couldn’t connect with, a mother who didn’t know how to love, responsibilities that caused him undue stress, etc. That these responsibilities were to the mob became increasingly incidental as the series wore on. Tony Soprano was a man who’d inherited a place in this world that was more uncertain than ever, and over time that uncertainty, and the emptiness it created within him, drove him to some increasingly inhuman places. But as portrayed by Gandolfini, he was that rare character who remained sympathetic no matter how despicable he became, causing the audience to take vicarious thrill in his (often morally loathsome) victories, and feel pain for his (mostly self-inflicted) problems.
Much of that can be attributed to the writing, of course, but even more can be accorded to Gandolfini, who could be scarily volatile, hangdog self-pitying, frustratingly obtuse, charmingly wiseass, and playful as a big, goofy kid—all in one episode. To watch Gandolfini as Tony Soprano is the rare occasion of seeing an actor fully inhabit a role, from those little quiet moments where Tony nurses himself with giant bowls of ice cream in front of the History Channel, nostalgic for a black-and-white world he never got to experience, to the bursts of violence that remind us of the powderkeg inside. Gandolfini’s performance is arguably the most compelling and nuanced portrayal in TV history, and the many awards he won for it—including an Emmy, a Golden Globe, two SAG awards, and three from the Television Critics Association—are pure icing next to the staggering legacy it created.
While Tony Soprano loomed as large over Gandolfini’s career as it still does over the whole of television, he gave many other fine performances on the big and small screens both before and after The Sopranos finally, controversially faded to black. As an altogether-different kind of mobster in 2001’s The Mexican, Gandolfini manages to upstage both Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, stealing the film as a gay, unusually polite hitman—one who was, again, singled out in reviews such as Entertainment Weekly’s, who said “what Gandolfini demonstrates is how one powerful player can regulate the thermostat of an entire film.” Pitt would finally rise to meet him on another mob story, 2012’s Killing Them Softly, playing yet another hitman—this one gone to seed on alcohol and ass, his former menace reduced to a strained petulance.
There were roles besides mobsters, of course; he also played in the arguably more corrupt arena of politics. He starred as the Mayor of New York in 2009’s remake of The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, and a local boss who tries manipulating Sean Penn’s idealistic Huey Long stand-in in All The King’s Men. In Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop, the erstwhile, slow-moving Tony Soprano proved balletic as he verbally sparred and parried with Iannucci’s fleet, acridly witty dialogue, playing a U.S. Lt. General who merrily brings his own big American guns to the British war of words. And in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, Gandolfini took on the intimidating, real-life role of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta—the erstwhile Tony Soprano now ordering the hit on Osama Bin Laden—with Gandolfini so concerned about any perceived insult, he reportedly wrote Panetta a note preemptively apologizing for any shortcomings, from one Italian to another. (Not surprisingly, Panetta later said Gandolfini did “a great job.”)
In addition to soldier roles in Crimson Tide and The Last Castle, Gandolfini got involved with the military off-screen as well, producing and hosting Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, an HBO documentary in which he interviewed injured veterans about the day they escaped death. He continued to concern himself with veterans’ issues with USO appearances and by producing another documentary, Wartorn 1861-2010, which looked at the history of post-traumatic stress disorder from the Civil War to the present day.
Gandolfini’s incredible range spread itself far and wide: He played a loudmouth lout upon whose fate the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There hangs; the seedy neighbor whose unthinkable act of violence against Robin Wright sparks the events of Nick Cassevetes’ She’s So Lovely; a sleazy talent scout caught up in the world of snuff films in 8mm; a murderer who terrorizes the crippled boy whose mother he killed in The Mighty. Perhaps worst of all, he pretends to be Ben Affleck’s dad for some stupid reason in Surviving Christmas. Yet he also lightened up and got to sing in Romance & Cigarettes, and played the “gentle giant” in a far more literal way by voicing the loving yet tantrum-prone “Carol” in Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, giving the film its melancholy soul.
In the past year alone, Gandolfini played a casino owner in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, romanced Julie Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holofcener’s now-in-post-production Enough Said, and finished what will now prove to be his final film role in the Tom Hardy-starring crime thriller Animal Rescue.
Since the end of The Sopranos, Gandolfini and HBO naturally made numerous, only occasionally successful attempts at working together again. In addition to Alive Day, Gandolfini produced the biopic Hemingway & Gellhorn, as well as starred as the documentarian who unwittingly invents reality television in Cinema Verite. But stabs at making a new Gandolfini series proved more difficult: 2010 brought reports that Gandofini would be producing and starring in Taxi 22, an adaptation of the Canadian comedy about a politically incorrect cab driver. After languishing at the cable network, it was picked up only two weeks ago at CBS, with Gandolfini still producing but no longer attached to star. (The show currently has a script commitment.)
More recently, Gandolfini and HBO had finally agreed, after more than a year of development, to move forward on Criminal Justice, a limited-series drama that would find him playing a downtrodden jailhouse attorney. Gandolfini’s sudden death leaves the future of the project “in limbo,” according to HBO, as it does the many other things he was working on, including Eating With The Enemy, a film that would have starred Gandolfini as the owner of a Hackensack barbecue joint who becomes involved in U.S.-North Korean relations; the movie Bone Wars that would have co-starred Gandolfini and Steve Carell as rival paleontologists; and Big Dead Place, a potential series that might have starred Gandolfini as a researcher in the Antarctic.
Fittingly, Gandolfini did manage to reunite with David Chase, returning to play another worried father—albeit a far less menacing one—in the director’s feature film debut, Not Fade Away. Gandolfini’s role was a relatively marginal yet still important one, providing the coming-of-age tale with the necessary antagonism and warmth, as he lectured his aspiring rock-star son on the ways of the world. While not the Sopranos movie some long insisted on lobbying for, the Chase-Gandolfini reunion was a joy to watch, and provided just enough hope that they might work together on something again.
As befits their inseparability, Chase has released a statement on Gandolfini’s death, saying:
“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For [wife] Deborah and [son] Michael and [daughter] Liliana this is crushing. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain.”
For the many who watched him in any of his roles, but especially as Tony Soprano, Chase’s sentiments feel familiar. Tony Soprano was, like all humans, a complicated mess, and James Gandolfini made the character the most complete realization of that ineffable human condition in the history of the medium. Beneath the superficial exterior of the “mob boss”—as shallow an archetype as was ever created—Gandolfini found bottomless layers: the anxious father, the affection-starved son, an alternately loving and terrible husband, a helpless romantic, a coldblooded pragmatist, an arrested-adolescent goofball, a raging bull, and on and on. That he contained these multitudes so effortlessly is what made Tony Soprano real, and James Gandolfini so strangely familiar and endlessly fascinating to watch, in ways we will similarly never be able to explain. And so we keep watching.
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