Walking home from work on Wednesday night, I received a text from my son: “James Gandolfini is dead, 51.” Tony Soprano gone. In real life. It hit me hard.
I shook hands with Gandolfini twice at HBO premiere parties — a cordial bear of man, holding court in the large subterranean plaza at Rockefeller Center.
People say I look a bit like Gandolfini. The Sopranos series finale, its 86th episode (I saw them all), “Made in America,” aired June 10, 2007. I couldn’t wait to find out what series creator David Chase would give me as a birthday present.
Chase subsequently said the answers were all there. But the screen faded to black.
First thought: The bleeping cable went out. Did the man in the Members Only jacket 86 Tony and his family with onion rings on the table at Holsten’s? Or did Tony’s life go on and on, wary of assassins and/or the feds eventually closing in? The closing’s ambiguity — the commentary has largely reshaped it toward the big guy’s demise — ensured its place within the medium’s pantheon.
I watched The Sopranos pilot in a hotel room at the Television Critics Association tour in 1999. Hooked from the outset, it felt good to be inside early on, after not heeding my wife’s initial Seinfeld touts. Even though I had the screeners, I still watched every Sunday night, engaging in lengthy Monday-morning quarterbacking sessions. It was good to be part of the family, so to speak, to be involved with something amoral, something dangerous, something worth paying $10 a month for HBO.
The Sopranos, the first cable show to win the Emmy for best drama, set the bar for the premium network as the paragon for series creation. Chase’s vision and Gandolfini’s menacing embodiment of Tony Soprano — in the defining role of a lifetime, he was a three-time Emmy winner for his portrayal of the ruthlessly scheming mob captain and parent who embraced therapy to try to maintain control of both of his families — paved the way for cable’s other flawed antiheroes: Vic Mackey, Walter White, Don Draper, Patty Hewes, Al Swearengen, Tommy Gavin, Christian Troy, Sean McNamara and Carrie Mathison, among them. We regularly invited these dark characters — not black, but mostly gray — into our living rooms.
Chase created a world that famously juxtaposed violence and humor, interspersed clipped, profane speech with mannerisms and behavior drawn from la cosa nostra stereotypes. He fleshed it out with self-absorbed characters, notably Tony’s wife Carmela, nephew Christopher and henchman Paulie Walnuts.
But with all due respect, the show centered around Gandolfini’s complex villain, who might initially amuse you, but was ultimately someone you never wanted to be on the wrong side of.
Given his inhabitation of the character, could Gandolfini have ever found another role to truly distance himself from Tony Soprano in our minds? Unlikely. Sadly, though, we'll never get a chance to find out.
Whaddya gonna do?
RIP James Gandolfini.