RIP James Gandolfini, gone so young at 51. If you’ve somehow never got round to watching The Sopranos, the series that ran on HBO between 1999 and 2007, you might be a bit taken aback by the level of emotion people expressed this morning when they heard. Get The Sopranos on DVD or, if you have Sky On Demand, watch the whole thing for free there. 86 episodes, no weak ones, all of them with Gandolfini as the Sun at the centre.
Superb as Gandolfini was in True Romance, Get Shorty and In the Loop among others, they were all rehearsals or reprises. He’ll be remembered for one TV role – and that’s fine, because The Sopranos was so much more than a TV show. They made 86 great movies. People like John Wayne, James Cagney and Clint Eastwood made their legends by playing similar roles again and again – Gandolfini went one better and refined the same one, growing into it (literally in the case of his and Tony’s spreading girth), inhabiting it fully. Tony Soprano was a whole career of acting.
That Sopranos fans felt they knew Tony, that they’d lived with him, that perhaps they even loved him, is of course all the more extraordinary because Tony was, objectively, a monster. He was a thief, adulterer, cruel bully and murderer. The task Sopranos creator David Chase set for his leading actor was to show that such people have doubts, desires and rivers of pain beneath the surface, just like the rest of us. The show’s original gimmick – he’s a fearsome mobster, but he’s seeing a shrink! – helped, but it was Gandolfini who painted it in three dimensions, playing Tony as a wounded bear, lumbering from crisis to crisis in a constant state of bewilderment and anger, with the anger directed more than anywhere at himself. You couldn’t not love him, even if you’d never want to be trapped with him in his cage.
Apart from showing that TV could have storytelling ambitions and production values to rival and, eventually, surpass film; and apart from helping to explode the silly TV-exec belief that lead characters had to be likeable, thus paving the way for works of art/literature on TV like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Girls and the rest – apart from those things, The Sopranos pulled off a great trick. Mad Men and Dexter, among others, have subsequently copied it.
It appeared to be about one thing: gangsters. You could enjoy the whole box set entirely on that level, like a version of The Godfather/GoodFellas that goes on for three days solid and never flags, with Gandolfini easily as imposing as De Niro or Brando. But really, it was about men. It was about one feckless man, at the mercy of his rage, his libido, his emotional cowardice, whose tragedy was that despite his endless bravado, he knew full well he was destroying everyone around him and couldn’t stop. The mistake that haunted him most was the one he was just about to make.
Gandolfini, with his looming presence and bottled-fire performance, embodied all this to perfection, bravely ditching all ego to embrace Tony’s darkest flaws and show us that they were our own. By the end, The Sopranos had fleshed Tony out so thoroughly, it could get away with extended dream sequences that didn’t feel like a folly. Gandolfini made that happen.
Inevitably the best soundbite has come from Chase, the man who gave Gandolfini the tools for the job: “He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of [his] genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times: ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.'”
That’s why, despite The Sopranos having ended six years ago, today feels like that notorious, genius last scene of the last episode: a sudden cut to black. (Watch it again and see what Chase decides Gandolfini should do for his grand finale: just sit there, being Tony.) It’s why people who never met Gandolfini actually feel bereft. But it’s also why – little consolation as it may be to Gandolfini’s family and friends who, if extraordinary tributes like this are any guide, have lost someone special indeed – he’ll never really be gone. People will be discovering and re-watching The Sopranos, and failing to match it, for decades to come. James Gandolfini was the boss.