R.I.P. James Gandolfini, and thank you for Tony Soprano
As you’ve probably already heard by now, actor James Gandolfini died yesterday at the age of 51. The man most of us knew as Tony Soprano was taken from this Earth long before any decent human being should.
I’ve been a huge fan of The Sopranos since day 1, watching every episode of the six season show in the early-mid 2000s, amazed at how an hour of television could, for the first time, rival a movie in terms of smart, complex story-telling Before The Sopranos, the difference between television and film was clear – brilliant mob movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas stood apart. Even a movie like A Bronx Tale was orders of magnitude better than anything you would see on television. The mediums were so different, you would never think of comparing a television show to a good film. With The Sopranos, that changed. Its depth, intelligence, and just overall high quality was unprecedented on television. Certain episodes, such as Season 1’s 5th episode “College,” suddenly belonged in a conversation with the aforementioned movies. And at the center of it all was James Gandolfini. I cannot imagine any other actor filling that role quite like he did.
To this day I remain a fan of the show, happily catching it on repeats airing nightly on HBO. A decade later it is as good as ever. Coincidentally, I am also currently in the middle of reading Alan Sepinwall‘s book, “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.” I read the chapter about The Sopranos no more than a week ago. Sepinwall wrote a wonderful piece about Gandolfini last night which borrowed some of the material from his book. This passage tells so much about how Gandolfini was indispensable in making The Sopranos the great show that it was:
Much of the credit for the show, and the character, comes from “Sopranos” creator David Chase, but Chase has said that Tony wasn’t fully-formed until Gandolfini was cast in the role.
The Jersey-born Gandolfini was one of three finalists for the role, along with fellow character actor Michael Rispoli and E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt. Van Zandt was eliminated quickly, but as then-HBO president Chris Albrecht told me when I interviewed him for my book, the show could have gone in two different directions based on the final choice.
“Rispoli was great,” Albrecht explained. “He was funnier than Jimmy, just because of the normal rhythms that he had. And we talked about it, and David said, ‘It’s a very different show if you put Rispoli in it or Jimmy in it, but the show I envisioned is the show that’s got Jimmy in it. It’s a much darker show with Jimmy in it.’ I think we sat with that for a moment. ‘Dark’ is not really a word you ever want to go for in television, but the other one was ‘more real.’ So we cast Jimmy.”
Gandolfini “just inhabited the tone of the script,” Chase told me. “At one time, I had said that this thing could be like a live-action ‘Simpsons.’ Once I saw him do it, I thought, ‘No, that’s not right. It can be absurdist, it can have a lot of stupid s–t in it, but it should not be a live-action ‘Simpsons.'”
While filming the series pilot episode, a bit of Gandolfini improvisation forever cemented the tone of the series. In one of the episode’s final scenes, Tony discovers that his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) has considered writing a screenplay about his life in the mob. The script directions said Tony would slap Christopher lightly across the face; Gandolfini instead picked up his smaller co-star to make abundantly clear how unhappy this development would make Tony.
“And I went, ‘All right, I got it. This is big s–t. This is serious,'” Chase recalled.
Despite my admiration for Gandolfini, I hesitate before using the word “sad” to describe my feelings about his passing, as so many have. (Do a quick twitter search for the words “gandolfini sad” and you’ll see what I mean.) From everything you read and hear, he was a fine man, warm and caring. But I didn’t know the man personally. Every day countless people die at the age of 51 or younger and we don’t, as a society, universally mourn. My grandfather passed away at 51; I never knew him. For me, that is sad. My brother tragically died at 19; that was devastating. I didn’t know Gandolfini. Moreover, his cause of death has been confirmed as a heart attack. Though there is no question that his passing was tragically premature, he did not take care of his own body, engaging in every manner of act that would increase his risk of heart disease.
I am not suggesting for a moment that Gandolfini brought this upon himself. Millions of people lead unhealthy lifestyles and live to ripe old ages. It is a tragedy when any man leaves behind a wife and children, let alone a man described as “by all accounts a marvelous friend and deeply respected by his peers. He had a charismatic personality and a great sense of humor.” People who knew him have every right to react with extreme sorrow, as they are doing. I’m merely suggesting that people who didn’t know him – people like you and me, who knew Tony Soprano, not James Gandolfini – should appreciate his life’s achievements but not be sorrowful. He left behind a brilliant six season body of work portraying a loveable anti-hero, to that point unprecedented. Whether or not you ever watched a single episode of The Sopranos, his work as Tony Soprano forever changed television – it likely deeply affected shows that you do or did watch, whether it is The Shield, Dexter, Mad Men, or so many more. Those shows do not exist as currently constructed if not for Tony Soprano. For that we should be grateful.
There are people to whom my heart sincerely extends. Gandolfini’s wife, children and friends, the people who knew and loved James Gandolfini the man. Those people are understandably saddened that they will live without their friend/father/husband for the remainder of their lives. He had much to contribute to their lives well past the age of 51. As for me, all I can do is positively reflect on what Gandolfini contributed to television overall, as the man I knew was Tony Soprano. Gandolfini was an entertainer, a great character actor who probably didn’t have any memorable work ahead of him. (Consider how much of his work you can think of other than The Sopranos.) But the work he already did warrants him indefinite acclaim.