Like great books, great actors transport us to another place and time; taking us inside the lives of fascinating people.
Few did that better than James Gandolfini, the phenomenal actor who played the tortured and nuanced Tony Soprano in the landmark HBO drama, “The Sopranos”.
When my daughter told me the news last night, I immediately turned on CNN, which had gone wall to wall with coverage of Gandolfini’s death of an apparent heart attack in the actor’s beloved Italy.
The wonderful thing about actors is that their work lives on long after they are gone. Gandolfini died at the age of 51, prompting the talking heads to remind those of who are overweight that we need to eat better and exercise more. We know that already of course. Some of my favorite performers, rapper Heavy D and soulful singer Luther Vandross died too young from complications of obesity.
Thankfully, we’ll remember much more than their struggle with weight. In Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, we met a mob boss who hated anyone who wasn’t Italian, had affairs with multiple women and routinely killed anyone who got in his way.
Gandolfini played his character with an intensity we rarely see. That’s what made his character so beloved. The HBO series, which ran for about six years, was nothing short of brilliant. TV critics say it paved the way for other series we loved, such as “The Wire” which depicted organized crime in the city Baltimore and swept up politicians, school children and the press.
Last night, I turned to YouTube last night to remind me of Gandolfini’s superb acting skills. There was the scene when his daughter comes home from Columbia with her biracial boyfriend and leaves him alone with her father. Tony immediately begins to grill the unknowing young man about where he’s from and ultimately who his people are. When Tony learns he’s Jewish and black, he tells him he’s sure his parents wouldn’t want him mixing with Italians and makes it clear he shares that view, the young man tells him, “F…. you,” Tony’s reply is classic Tony: “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do that.”
Watching Tony spar with his sister Janice, fellow mobsters Johnny Sack, Uncle Junior, Bobby and Paulie is to go inside a world that is never dull and rarely disappoints. One of my favorite rituals was watching Tony go to the end of his winding driveway of his suburban New Jersey mansion in his underwear and open robe to fetch his daily newspaper. And I never got tired of seeing Tony drive around Jersey to the sound of “Got myself a Gun” in the show’s opening.
The beauty of Gandolfini’s character: he is never predictable. One minute, Tony is ordering a hit, the next minute he is tenderly consoling one of his children, Meadow and A.J. And the love-hate relationship he has with his wife, played beautifully by Edie Falco, reminds us that Tony is a lot like the rest of us — except that he kills people for a living.
I don’t condone that lifestyle, but I confess to being intriqued by it.
After watching Tony in those intense, yet comical therapy sessions, flirting with his doc while trying to find meaning in his madness, how can you not root for the guy?
I won’t spoil the series’ ending. I’ll just say it was one of the best ever.
In real life, we learn Gandolfini was a great guy with a wife and two children. Our prayers go out to them.
RIP Tony. Let’s hope you’re not sleeping with the fishes.