James Gandolfini passed away last week while vacationing with his son in Italy. The New Jersey born actor and star of the ground breaking cable drama The Sopranos was only 51 years old. It is seems strange to even think of The Sopranos as “ground breaking”, but in many ways Gandolfini’s approach to the character of family patriarch Tony Soprano is responsible for the recent boom in cable television dramas.
From the pilot episode, Gandolfini showed us a tough talking and quick tempered mob boss with a panic disorder. Gandolfini dared to allow us the insight into a character we didn’t want to like. His unflinching and open portrayal of the self serving Tony as a bad husband, failed father and poor leader hearkened back to his early days on the stage. Tony is cunning, shrewd and controlling. His interior life is rich and thoughtful, though his exterior seemed to be shallow. Gandolfini gave us all of this and more in all 86 episodes of the Emmy-award-wining series.
The purity of his anger was often captured in his performances. Gandolfini, said that he would focus his anger and incorporate it into a scene. In an interview for the television series Inside the Actors Studio, he said he would deliberately hit himself on the head or stay up all night to evoke the desired reaction. “If you are tired, every single thing that somebody does makes you mad”, Gandolfini said in the interview. “Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It’s silly, but it works.”
We have Tony Soprano to thank for all of the many splendid ways TV doesn’t suck. If not for the Sopranos, there would have been no The Shield, Rescue Me, or House. Feature film actors would not have given the tired medium of television a try. Writers pushed the limit of what a television show could be; basic cable followed suit, and the rest is history.
The Sopranos came to what seemed like an abrupt end in 2007. After much build up to what seems like a hit on Tony, while he is having dinner in a restaurant with his family the screen simply goes black. The viewer is left with many unanswered questions. In many ways James Gandolfini’s life ended in the same fashion. Questions about what might have been always abound when someone dies so young. Gandolfini said he was okay with being typecast of Tony Soprano, and that he was being offered different kinds of roles as he aged.
“Mostly it’s not a lot of that stuff anymore with shooting and killing and dying and blood,” he said. “I’m getting a little older, you know. The running and the jumping and killing, it’s a little past me.”