June 20, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
The Sopranos was the first television show I fell in love with. I would sit in the living room every Sunday night at 9pm with my brother and mom, the lights would be dimmed. We had just gotten HBO and 13-year-old me felt like he was viewing a 50 minute film every week. The first episode I saw was Two Tonys, the season five premiere that ends with Tony Soprano sitting in the backyard of his old house at night, holding an AK-47, a cigar in his mouth protecting his family from a black bear. This scene epitomized Tony Soprano—the stubborn mobster with a gun, the protector, the provider, the husband, and the father.
Tony Soprano was already intriguing on paper, a loving father and a cold-blooded gangster with psychological issues. But James Gandolfini brought something other than charisma and charm to a role that was preset with those qualities; he made us believe that this larger than life character was genuinely afraid. He was scared of dying, frightened of his peers, and flawed like everyone.
After hearing of Gandolfini’s death last night I started browsing the internet for old interviews and film clips with him. In each one it became impossible not to look at the comments and see “rest in peace” or remarks on his genius and how much he will be missed. When any respected celebrity dies, this is usually the response. But what separates Gandolfini is that some of these reactions were more specific and felt more personal to people who watched the actor all these years. One comment read: “I am so gutted about James’ passing. Absolutely amazing actor.” Another comment, on reddit, told of how Gandolfini was at an event in which he was supposed to be seated with other celebrities, but instead chose to sit at a table full of acting students.
Gandolfini doubled as the protagonist and the antihero before this was the norm. Tony Soprano was only as likeable as his charm allowed and his charm only went as far as Gandolfini permitted. His actions are as polarizing as a human can be. Tony could kill a character fans had grown to love and in the next scene you’d find yourself rooting for him not to be caught by the FBI. Gandolfini made us cheer for an evil protagonist; he highlighted the family man attributes: the care, the charm, the father who would die for his children. This was before Walter White, Don Draper, and Dexter Morgan had to choose between the people they loved and their daily immoral lifestyles.
I was Gandolfini-obsessed in 11th grade. I watched anything he was in because I was enamored with the actor who looked like exactly like Tony Soprano, but actually sounded like Kevin Finnerty. His film career may have never reached the heights of less deserving actors, but with each role, Gandolfini brought a magnitude and attitude to the characters he was portraying. From psychopath Virgil in True Romance to gay hitman Winston Baldry in The Mexican, Gandolfini illustrated range in how he played these characters rather than in who he was portraying.
Gandolfini lived a private life with his wife and two children. He wasn’t often in the spotlight and at times he was even considered a sex symbol, something he did not understand.”That sex symbol thing is so freaky to me,” he said to the Chicago Sun-Times . “I’m the guy on TV in that lovely terry-cloth robe with his big gut hanging out.” Gandolfini was startling to listen to, hearing the lower pitched voice, the annunciation contrast with his television persona was like realizing someone you’ve known for so many years was leading a double life. But that’s how talented he was. Gandolfini wasn’t the characters he played; he was less forthright, more reserved.
One thought I usually have when hearing an actor, writer, director, musician I admire died before they reach old age is that their potential was not fully reached. Heath Ledger, Amy Winhouse, even Levon Helm seemed like they could have done so much more. Gandolfini’s death felt the same. For some reason after The Sopranos ended I thought his career was just beginning, even though he’d already been in a myriad of films and won three Emmy awards. Sometimes life abruptly cuts to black and we are forced to look back on what the people we admire gave us and realize that more wasn’t necessary; their career-potential was less significant than their life-potential. And James Gandolfini surpassed his potential in both.