I read it. I liked it. I thought it was good. But I thought they would have to hire some good looking guy—not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney—and that would be that. But they called me and they said can I meet David for breakfast at 9 a.m. At the time I was younger, and I stayed out late a lot. And I was like, "Oh, for fuck's sake. This guy wants to eat breakfast? This guy's going to be a pain in the ass."
-Actor James Gandolfini on The Sopranos and its creator, David Chase
The passing of James Gandolfini yesterday came as a shock to just about everyone it seems. After hearing it, I went through the 21st century version of the five stages of grief. First, I visited reliable online news sources to confirm that the reports were indeed true. Second, I shared my sadness with Facebook friends. Then I went on Twitter to read the reactions of celebrities and journalists. Next, I scoured the cable guide for any showings of The Sopranos, a show I hadn't seen since its cancellation. And finally, I find myself here writing up whatever kind of minuscule tribute to the actor I can offer.
I haven't been this saddened by the death of someone I don't personally know since the passing of George Harrison, I suppose. Like music, the world of TV is a far more intimate one than that of my regular bailiwick. The scope and grandeur of the movies, the fact that you often share the experience of seeing them with strangers creates a distance I think. But large screens notwithstanding, TV is part of your living room, and the continuous reappearance of an actor in the guise of a character you get to know better than even some blood relatives forges a bond.
I fooled myself into thinking HBO would somehow acknowledge Gandolfini's passing with some scrolling chyron text or something. I did finally find an airing of The Sopranos episode "Where's Johnny?" at about 9:30 p.m. last night. I'm not sure if HBO suddenly rushed it on air in response to this tragedy. But it couldn't have been a more appropriate tribute to the actor's range even within the sharply defined character of Tony Soprano. And when the episode ended, HBO did something I believe is unprecedented, posting a dedication to the man who was so instrumental in changing the landscape of TV both broadly and for the pay-channel his show put on the map.
Gandolfini was so good at delineating Anthony John Soprano, cold-blooded mob boss and caring family man, that it was easy to believe he was only playing some outsized version of himself. But consider his appearance as Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty or his voice performance as the gargantuan Carol in Where the Wild Things Are, both far afield in demeanor from the man we believed we knew Gandolfini to be. The fact that anyone who hasn't seen The Sopranos can see those characters and just as easily believe that they represent the real Gandolfini is a measure of his craft.
We all lost a great actor, by many accounts a great human being, and certainly an unknown number of great performances that were to come. What those of us who regularly watch television know is that there's one treasure we haven't lost, his complicated, odious yet beloved character of Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini died Wednesday at the age of 51.
Recommended Films - True Romance, Crimson Tide, Get Shorty, The Man Who Wasn't There, In the Loop, Where the Wild Things Are, Killing Them Softly, Not Fade Away, Zero Dark Thirty
Recommended TV - The Sopranos, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq