James Gandolfini: More Than Tony Soprano, and Yet . . .

Meaning no disrespect—I mean, hey, you never know—I think we know what happened to Tony Soprano.

Remember that last, monastic, almost zen-like episode of “The Sopranos,” where it went to fade-to-blank as Tony was talking with his wife in Holsten’s restaurant? It set heads to scratching and left Tony hanging, so to speak, in terms of his ultimate fate. Was he about to be killed? Why did he pick “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox, not even knowing that “Glee” was coming? Did he write his memoirs? Was he secretly running the Russian mob?

Well, now we know. He was in an elaborate Department of Justice Witness Protection Program, hiding in plain sight as a gifted, versatile, modest and unforgettable actor named James Gandolfini, who appeared in dozens of movies, television roles and voice-overs, looking always, but never quite, just like Tony Soprano. You could never pin the guy down.

Gandolfini, who was only 51 and the proud father of a young child with his second wife, died while in Italy—go figure—while at a film festival. Gandolfini was that rare acting persona, a character actor who disappeared into his characters and then became—for the lifetime of seven seasons—a huge television star playing—yeah, that’s right—the mobster, the husband, the parent, the adulterer and killer. That’s right: he did his own dirty work. Remember when he and a pal snuffed out Pussy? Goes to show you how smart he was for a mob guy. Here he was being this guy doing all these little parts because he had a knack for it, then coming straight out into the wide open, playing Tony Soprano. Pretty slick. I mean the only time you see these guys is when they’re doing a perp walk or when they’re ratting out their buddies on “Law & Order.”

It’s fair to say that Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano, which, thanks to him and director David Chase had a huge following on HBO. “The Sopranos” was something of a pioneer in television series work, leading eventually to other conflicted hero-villains, good guy-bad-guy (and good and bad woman), including characters as diverse as “Dexter,” “Mad Men” and Julius Caesar (“Rome”) and Edie Falco—nee Mrs. Tony Soprano as “Nurse Jackie.”

It might have been frustrating for him—if you look at a list of those films he made where he slipped out of Soprano’s loud and big suburban men’s shirt. They’re small parts in smallish thrillers, or called indy films, many of them not particularly successful, but all of them memorable in a disturbing way, sort of like any single episode of “The Sopranos.”

If you look at the titles and the characters, they appear elusive, like refrains from songs you don’t quite remember but haunt you nevertheless, people that made you slow down in the middle of a crowded street or stories that never resolved themselves, leaving a question mark—oops, like the last of Tony. He played guys named Tony Baldessari, Angelo, Billy Coyle, Vinnie, Ben Pinkwater, Bobby Dougherty, Bear, Joey Alegretto, Willie “Woody” Dumas, Winston Baldry, Big Dave Brewster, Nick Murder (ya gotta be kiddin’ me) Tiny Duffy, Mr. G. and in a yet unreleased film, called “Nicky Deuce,” a character named Bobby Eggs. And let us not forget the CIA director (Leon Panetta) in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Juror No. 6, the Mayor of New York City, and an orderly in a 1987 movie called “Shock! Shock! Shock!”

Even the titles resonate: “Mr. Wonderful,” “The Mighty,” “Fallen,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The Last Castle” (he had Robert Redford killed), “Cinema Verite,” “Get Shorty,” an ultimate kind of sleaze ball in “8mm” and the dizzy, violent “True Romance.”

It’s fair to say he was an actor’s actor—everybody loved and respected him. Yet even at the height of Soprano dazzle, he avoided the dazzle. In “The Sopranos,” Tony Soprano took over—he became an icon like Marshall Dillon, Archie and Edith Bunker, Seinfeld in “Seinfeld,” Lucy, Maverick, Joe Friday, every character from which the actor could never quite escape, even Lennie Briscoe on “Law & Order.”

Gandolfini had never really aspired to being a television superstar. So, in a sense, he did escape but just working all the time—three movies in 2012, three this year already.

Or you could say that Tony Soprano and his gang took over—there’s an entire Wiki website separately from Gandolfini—on Tony Soprano his life and times—his parents (mom tried to kill him), wife, son and daughter, and, of course his girlfriends and his rivals and pals, his other family and, let’s not forget, his shrink Dr. Melfi. It’s like an alternative universe narrative, set in New Jersey.

James Gandolfini was lionized by his fellow actors and peers online and elsewhere. Chase, “The Sopranos” creator, said of him, “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.” James Gannascoli (Vito Spatafore on “The Sopranos”) said, “He came with his son and spoke at my wedding, came to my restaurant to meet fans sick as a dog in the rain and stayed for hours . . . Just a humble and gifted actor and person.”

And this from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie “He was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy.”

The true Jersey guy—coulda been talking about: Tony Soprano, the guy who said, “With marriage, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce” as well as “What use is an unloaded gun?”


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