James Gandolfini died on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 in Rome at the age of 51. He is best known for his three-time Emmy winning performance as mafia boss, Tony Soprano, on HBO's "The Sopranos".
I had the good fortune to watch the entire run of "The Sopranos" recently so the brilliance of Gandolfini's performance is very fresh in my mind. James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano was one of those rare cases where the perfect actor is cast to play a character that is perfect for him.
The character of Tony Soprano could have been a cookie cutter caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Gandolfini, on the other hand, took a tired, old cliche and breathed fresh, new life into it. Gandolfini was a mountain of a man, at 260 pounds he was a physically imposing presence, and he was comfortable projecting his powerful presence on screen, but what set Gandolfini apart was that he had expressive, sensitive, child-like eyes. You could sense his insecurity, sensitivity, his hurt and inner wound with just a look from those eyes. When he turned in a flash into a hulking, raging menace, it was all the more effective because he was a hurt, confused little boy just a moment before. His Tony was, in fact, a giant child, both physically and emotionally. He was at once combustible and yet lovable, and always dangerously at the mercy of his appetites.
The complexity of the inner life of Tony Soprano is what made the character so fascinating, so beloved and the show so successful. The contrasts between Tony's child-like soul, sometimes wounded and other times sweet and playful, and his violent and cruel actions made for as dynamic a character as there has ever been on television.
Tony Soprano was, like many of us, a man at war with himself, with his conscience and with his sense of duty to his family and his "family". That battle played itself out in every relationship he had, from his wife and kids, to his therapist and gumares, to his mother, uncle and sister and finally to his mafioso friends and enemies alike. Gandolfini's innate talent, skill and commitment to craft are what made it possible for us to relate to a mafia boss on a human level. Tony was one of us, with all the strengths we wish we had, and the weaknesses we wish we didn't.
As an actor, James Gandolfini was what we all should aspire to be, he was successful because he was a master craftsman who loved his craft and honed it. He didn't play the game, he wasn't a publicity hound, he didn't marry a movie star, he didn't inject himself into the maelstrom of our celebrity culture. He simply worked hard to develop his skill and talent, and then he put his head down and went to work. When he went to work he brought to life a character that is as good as anything we have ever seen on television and has changed the medium forever by opening the door for more morally and emotionally complicated characters.
The world of acting is a lesser place with the loss of the heavyweight talent and artistry of James Gandolfini.