WASHINGTON, June 27, 2013 — James Gandolfini was the actor behind arguably the greatest television show ever made, “The Sopranos.” HBO’s groundbreaking series took the mob out of the cinema and brought it to the small screen in a way that “The Untouchables” never dreamed of.
Unburdened by issues with languages or commercials, “The Sopranos” brought us a mini-movie every Sunday night. It was a water cooler show, one that was discussed by everyone the next day, and one that forever changed the idea of “protagonist.”
Because of Gandolfini’s work, Tony Soprano became a television icon, one who stayed in our imagination and thoughts from that first counseling session with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (when, as he discussed getting coffee, he omitted that he actually mowed down a person who owed him money in his nephew’s Lexus) to the controversial-even-unto-this-
It was James Gandolfini who brought the beautiful monster, the loveable sociopath that was Tony Soprano, into our lives.
And a monster he was, make no mistake. Tony Soprano personally pulled the trigger on at least seven people: a former Mob informant while on a trip with his daughter Meadow; two black guys who attempted to carjack him; one of his best friends, Big Pussy, who was an FBI informant; one of his captains, Ralph, because Ralph killed a horse; his nephew, Christopher, in a cover-up of an accident. Those are just the ones Tony himself killed. He ordered several other hits, and participated in the cleanup of a murder performed by his very sister.
Like most monsters and sociopaths, Tony never seemed troubled by these grisly matters; oftentimes, murder would be followed up with meals or family time.
Murder and a disregard for human life were not Tony’s only flaws.
Tony was famously unfaithful to his wife Carmella. During the show’s six year run, Tony had a Russian mistress who eventually caused a separation in his marriage; an Italian mistress he met in his psychiatrist’s office; and a young mistress who nearly burned herself to death arguing with him—whom he dumped afterward.
That doesn’t included a one-night stand with his Russian mistress’s one-legged cousin, sex in a Roman soldier costume during a visit to Italy, a quickie from a girl in his office on his desk, a rendezvous with a flight attendant from Icelandic Air, and a slew of other females from his encounters in his line of work.
It also does not include the ones that got away, including those women who belonged to his friends. Tony personified greed; big, burly, powerful, rich, he took whatever he wanted from whomever he wanted.
Monsters have no real boundaries. Sociopaths have no real emotions. Tony used drugs, including cocaine; he drank heavily when saddened; he was portrayed the entire time on the show as a borderline sociopath.
David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” has often been bewildered at people’s love for Tony Soprano with all of his faults and issues. James Gandolfini is what made that love possible; it is he who created such a beautiful monster, such a loveable sociopath.
Gandolfini played Tony with all of the emotion and fragility of a man deeply concerned for both his family at home and the mob family that he controlled.
Gandolfini took Tony’s love/hate relationship with his mother, his loving-if-distant relationship with his son and daughter, his callous but somehow loving relationship with his wife, his paternal relationship with his nephew; and all of this emotion made this hulk of a man seem almost delicate, even pitiable. He was crass, boorish, and murderous—and we cheered for him, because he still cared.
We felt for him as he wept over a family of ducks leaving his swimming pool. We marveled at this monster of a man, who could be sweet and tender with a horse at three in the morning and kill the owner after the horse burned to death.
Here was this sociopath of man who at one point could declare his undying love for his psychiatrist and then call her horrible names and threaten to never see her again. Yet his might and appeal was so overwhelming that even Dr. Melfi, after being raped in her parking structure, was forced to use every inch of her professionalism to not “call in a favor.”
Tony often lamented, “What happened to the strong, silent type?” attributing himself to be more in the vane of Gary Cooper than some pezzonovante whining about his feelings. He referred to himself as the sad clown, always needing to be on for everyone else, but inside weeping, and Gandolfini made us believe it were true.
The Shakespearean tragedy of his relationship with his uncle – conniving then hateful after his uncle nearly murdered him in a dementia-induced shooting, and then tearful at the end when the former Boss of the New Jersey Crime Family no longer could recognize him—dominated the show’s emotional content, and we went along for the ride. Gandolfini played these emotions like a violin, thus giving us a beautiful monster to marvel over.
Once, while in a coma, Tony dreamed of a life as a normal man, a man who lived as “regular Joe,” and as he approached what he perceived to be a form of Hell in the dream, it was the cries of his daughter who brought him back. You sighed with relief when it happened, the same way you frowned with anger with the police or the FBI pursued him. Gandolfini drew you in to Tony, and made him—paradoxically—a beautiful monster, a loveable sociopath.
Indeed, Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano as a man with deep flaws but powerful emotions, paved the way for several other antiheros or tarnished protagonists to come later, including the by-any-means-necessary Jack Bauer of “24”; and serial killer with a heart of gold Dexter from the Showtime program with the same name. The Sopranos is not great solely because of Gandolfini; Edie Falco was also lauded for her tragic role as Tony’s longsuffering wife Carmella, and several members of the cast were and are stars of stage and screen. The writing was brilliant, the arcs were believable, the plots kept you on the edge of your seat. Yet it was Gandolfini who set the table for everyone else to eat from.
Chase has called Gandolfini a genius in the wake of his tragic death on June 19, 2013.
In a world dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Meryl Streep, the idea seems ludicrous that this balding, obese, three-time Emmy Award winner could be considered an acting demigod. Yet if the mark of a great actor is to make us empathize with the character, to make even the most sleazy and deviant of characters a person that we could identify with—even admire—then Gandolfini hit his mark, and then some. Tony Soprano is every bit as identifiable with classic mobsters on film as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino’s portrayals of the Corleones. With his tragic passing coming at 51, we cannot know what jewels Gandolfini could have given us in the years to come. What we can do is embrace the beautiful monster that he gave to us—to be debated over, to be studied, to be imitated, to be appreciated.
Rest easy, Don Soprano. You will be missed. Whattayagonnado.
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