The last two days have been particularly crazy for me (CliffsNotes version – it involved two trips to the Bronx and back in less than a 24 hour period). After an unexpected day out of the office, I was quickly scanning my work email when I saw a note from CNN pop up in my inbox. As I read the message, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had to read it three times to make sure that my exhausted and addled brain wasn’t hallucinating.
“Actor James Gandolfini died in Italy of a possible heart attack.”
When I realized what I was actually reading, I was absolutely stunned and a sadness washed over me. Tony Soprano was dead at the age of 51.
Like most people, I realized what a talented actor that Gandolfini was during his tenure as the head of a New Jersey crime family on The Sopranos. I was aware of him from his appearance as a hit man in True Romance, but it was his work on the HBO drama that showed the depth of his ability. Tony Soprano on paper is an absolute monster, yet Gandolfini with his subtle and nuanced performance helped create a character that had some vulnerability and humanity. Tony still wasn’t a good guy, but Gandolfini somehow made viewers feel a little less terrible about themselves rooting for a guy that cheats on his wife, murders people and generally is awful. Gandolfini softened Tony, while possessing the range to also make it abundantly clear that this character could also be cold, calculating and terrifying. Not many actors could play both ends of the spectrum as effortlessly, but Gandolfini made it look so easy. You could fool yourself into thinking that he actually was Tony Soprano. The Sopranos helped change television and definitely paved the way for other great dramas that center on an anti-hero like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
Because of his appearance and ethnicity, Gandolfini was often cast as the tough guy. However, in real life he was a notoriously private and generous man. He generally shunned the limelight and rarely gave interviews; he didn’t understand why anyone would be particularly interested in him. I obviously didn’t know him personally, but he always struck me as someone who was probably a really nice guy. Under that rough exterior, I’d like to think there was a big teddy bear. I was always happy to see him turn up in any movie that I was watching as I could count on him to give a solid performance; recently, I especially enjoyed him in Zero Dark Thirty and the woefully underrated Killing Them Softly. Gandolfini found success as an actor later in life and I am just so sad that we didn’t have that long to enjoy him excelling at his craft. It’s especially heartbreaking to know that his young daughter Liliana, born in 2012, will not get the chance to know her father.
Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife Carmela on The Sopranos issued this statement after his passing: “I am shocked and devastated by Jim’s passing. He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words. I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague. My heart goes out to his family. As those of us in his pretend one hold on to the memories of our intense and beautiful time together. The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.” Jeff Daniels, who performed on Broadway with Gandolfini, said “If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in God of Carnage, we played 320 performances together. He didn’t miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.” Other former colleagues and celebrities have weighed in as well with touching tributes to a man that is gone far too soon. He will be missed; this weekend may be time to dust off my The Sopranos box set and relive some of his greatest moments. I’ll certainly rewatch this appearance on Inside the Actors Studio:
Rest in Peace, James. You made television and life better by being a part of it.