Some men are born to do something. What that something is, is different for every man. Einstein was born to be a scientist. Beethoven, a musician. They’re meant to do one thing, for however long they are allowed to do it. James Gandolfini, who passed away while on vacation in Italy with his family, was born to play Tony Soprano. Before David Chase had even dreamed up The Sopranos , James Gandolfini was there, patiently waiting in the wings, biding his time before fate finally, expectedly, came knocking at his door.
James Gandolfini was an excellent actor; his work speaks volumes, but there was always a bit of Tony in him, wasn’t there? Even from his early role in True Romance , this man was born to play brusque, arrogant, sociopathic mob Patriarch Tony Soprano. It is the perfect unison of writing and casting that has created something that, almost a decade after the show aired its (brilliant, daring) finale, people still James Gandolfini as the titular role from one television’s most important series. To be sure, Gandolfini never tried to live the role down on screen. If you needed a big, hulking braggart or shady dealer, Gandolfini was your man.
All of it his work, even his hilarious turn in this year’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a hint of Tony Soprano, and not just because Gandolfini so embodied the character for eight seasons. He knew where his bread was buttered and typecasting isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, especially when you’re as talented and as humble as Gandolfini, who hit it big ten years after most people first make their splash in the industry.
Matt first turned me onto The Sopranos years ago. After a few episodes, we talked about what was it about the show that made it so engaging and the answer we came up with was that “it was about people who also happened to be gangsters”. We all tuned in every Sunday on HBO to see what terrible justice Tony Soprano and his crew were going to lay out against an untold number of adversaries, but really, we wanted to see that for all the success Tony found, he was just as rotten, if not moreso, than all of us.
The character of Tony is a burning star of contradictions; the man couldn’t even do pensive without seeming to shout to the rafters. He murdered one of his best friends, yet played nice with his own kids. He was a sociopath, his therapist even said as much, but we still let him get away with the sympathetic victim card time and time again. We wanted to see him go down in flames, because a corrupt sonofabitch like that has to , but deep down, we really, really wanted to see him get away with it all.
If someone were to ask me that question again, I would have to pause and think longer on it and now, my answer would be simply: James Gandolfini. He embodied everything right and wrong with The Sopranos and, by extension, everything right and wrong with America. He wielded the scalpel as excellently as he did a bulldozer, often employing both tools within the same scene. It’s hard to say how impactful a character would be had the role gone to somebody else, but it is impossible to imagine Tony Soprano played by anyone other than James Gandolfini. James is Tony, Tony is James.
Tony was the role James was born to play, and the role was there all along, waiting. Tony Soprano is his finest role, and arguably one of the finest performances by any actor in any medium, but at 51, Gandolfini had decades to find another. Death doesn’t take away the work of the life, and Gandolfini had, by all accounts, a fantastic one. Death takes away all the possibility of the future. There may not have been another Tony waiting patiently on the sidelines for Gandolfini, but the man at least deserved a chance to look a little longer.
Today, we mourn the passing of one of the great actors of our time. James Gandolfini never sought the spotlight, he never bothered anyone (and was by all accounts, an excellent tipper and human being). He was so unlike Tony Soprano that it’s hard to imagine where the actor found the inspiration to inhabit the mind of such a miserable cur for so long. That he found a way to do just that and made it beautiful at the same time is his greatest legacy, and no finer accolade can be bestowed upon an actor than by us saying ‘You moved us.’