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Remembering James Gandolfini

The unexpected loss of a towering cultural figure

Have we ever known an actor’s breathing the way we knew James Gandolfini’s? Or the sound of an actor’s chewing? We tend to feel a more intimate connection with TV stars than we do with people we know as looming figures on a movie screen. But in the course of six seasons of The Sopranos, we got really intimate with Gandolfini. I’ve had long-term roommates whose bodily noises I didn’t know half as well. No TV character was ever this corporeal.

The Sopranos put us inside Tony’s skin from the beginning. The very beginning — think of that opening-credits sequence, Tony’s drive home to North Caldwell from Manhattan, which unfolded in a montage of jittery car-window POV shots and close-ups so tight we could practically taste his cigar smoke, the visual equivalent of the second-person singular. Were we breathing down his neck? Was he breathing down ours? The ambiguity was deliberate. This show wasn’t going to let us judge Tony from a safe distance; it meant to rob us of our objectivity. We could pretend we kept coming back every week to see what David Chase had to say about American culture or who’d get whacked next. But really we were there because we’d gotten close to these people, because underneath it all they reminded us of us. (Chris Moltisanti, teasing the crew’s old FBI antagonist Agent Harris upon catching him tucking into pastrami at Satriale’s: “I don’t think you come here for the sandwiches — I think you come ’cause you miss us.”)

Tony Soprano was a terrible person and I hated to see him sad. That was partly because of David Chase, who created the character, and the phenomenal writers and directors who helped Chase tell Tony’s story. Supposedly Chase was surprised by the degree to which people identified with Tony and rooted for him to crush his enemies; it never sat right with him. (The existence of YouTube videos that boil down entire seasons of the show to just-the-murders highlight reels probably doesn’t, either.) A lot of that was Gandolfini: The show continually served up proof positive that Tony was a monster, and then Gandolfini would pull you back in.

And he could do it with the smallest of gestures. Feel like breaking your own heart tonight? Go back — the way I did on Wednesday, after news broke that Gandolfini had died, suddenly and absurdly, in Rome, at 51, less than a year after the birth of his second child — and watch the coma-dream episodes of The Sopranos. “Join the Club” and “Mayham” followed the show’s sixth-season premiere, which ended with an addled Uncle Junior mistaking Tony for an old, long-dead enemy and shooting him in the gut. “Join the Club,” written by Chase himself, takes place two days later. Tony’s in a hospital bed, unconscious, bombed on Ativan, fighting sepsis and breathing through tubes. But we don’t know that yet.1 Instead, we see him waking up in a hotel room, rumpled and disoriented, looking out the window at a mysterious lighthouse-like beacon on the horizon.

He’s Anthony Soprano, but not the Anthony Soprano we know. A legitimate businessman. A citizen. Sells precision optics. Before that it was patio furniture. He’s in Costa Mesa for a convention. He’s got a wife and kids back home in New Jersey, but he doesn’t have Tony’s Jersey accent; he talks like James Gandolfini. He goes down to the lobby bar for a drink. The next morning he goes to check in at the convention and realizes the wallet and briefcase he’s carrying belong to someone else, a guy named Kevin Finnerty, of Kingman, Arizona. When he goes back to the bar, some goofball makes the Finnerty/infinity connection right away, but Tony barely registers it; you get the feeling that if he did, this whole world might roll up and disappear like a window shade.

Finnerty turns out to maybe be not that great of a guy. In the lobby, waiting for an elevator, Tony’s confronted by two Buddhist monks who accuse him/Finnerty of selling them a faulty heating system. When Tony insists that he’s not Finnerty, one of the monks snaps, “Lose your arrogance,” and slaps him across the face. The day gets worse. He slips in a stairwell and cracks his head. An emergency-room doctor shows him evidence of early-onset Alzheimer’s on his MRI. He goes to the Omni and checks into a room they’re holding for Finnerty. In Jersey, he’s fighting for his life; in the dream, he’s beginning to let go of his former self. He thinks about calling his family, but doesn’t. Roll credits, in a fairly shocking violation of the unwritten TV rule that all dream sequences must be self-contained.

“Mayham” is next. In Costa Mesa, Anthony finds a party invitation in Finnerty’s briefcase — a family reunion. He drives to a country inn somewhere in the woods. There’s a man with a clipboard working the door. It’s Steve Buscemi — who played Tony Blundetto, the cousin Tony was forced to kill a few seasons earlier — in a Lloyd the Bartender tuxedo. “Your family’s inside,” Buscemi says, as beatifically calm as you’ve ever seen Steve Buscemi look. “They’re here to welcome you. You’re going home.” Tony’s about to walk up the stairs, into the house — he can’t see who’s inside, but it’s full of music and laughter and warm white light — when Buscemi stops him, reaches for Tony/Finnerty’s briefcase, and says “We don’t bring business in here,” kindly but firmly.2 Then, from the woods, he hears a little girl’s voice, calling him Daddy, begging him not to go.

By now we all know what that house represents. Back in Jersey, Tony’s going into cardiac arrest while Meadow and Carmela look on in horror. He survives, of course — he lives through the rest of the season, makes it to Holsten’s for onion rings, maybe further than that, maybe not. The question of whether he made it to the end of that Journey song always seemed a little beside the point to me; we’d already seen Tony’s death, right there in Costa Mesa. Watch the weather on Gandolfini’s face when Buscemi tells him to go inside — the way he goes from confusion to relief and joy to dread and back again. The way his eyes well up. The disappointment on his face when he realizes he can’t walk up those stairs, not yet. The show had about 18 hours left to run, but if The Sopranos had a happy ending, this was it — the suggestion that even Tony might walk into the light. And Gandolfini shows you all that, while presumably staring at nothing but a camera and a couple of lights.

Gandolfini was born in New Jersey in 1961. By the time The Sopranos premiered, he was almost 40, and he’d been at this work a long time. A 1988 New York Times article about the city’s new class of apartment-hopping nomads introduces us to one Jim Gandolfini, 26, “whose calling is the theater but whose living comes mostly from bartending and construction.”3 Four years after that, he made his Broadway debut as Steve Hubbell, the landlady’s husband, in A Streetcar Named Desire — Alec Baldwin was Stanley Kowalski — and scored his first credited movie role,4 as one of the red-herring murder suspects in A Stranger Among Us.

Even back then — with a little less weight on him, a little more hair — he was nobody’s idea of a leading man. But if you watched enough movies, you got used to seeing him around. He was one of those actors you were always glad to run into, even though his arrival in a scene was almost never good news. He does some fine, squirrelly stage business with eyedrops and nasal spray as the D.A. who tries to frame Charlie Sheen5 for murder in 1994’s Terminal Velocity. In Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, he’s a midlevel snuff-film producer with up-to-no-good sideburns who meets with the fate God reserves for people who dare kick the shit out of Nicolas Cage in a Nicolas Cage movie. But there’s all that, and then there’s what he did in Tony Scott’s True Romance, from 1993. He’s Virgil, mob gun-thug out of Detroit, who’s trailed Christian Slater and a suitcase full of stolen coke to a motel in L.A. and found Slater’s pretty wife, Alabama (Patricia Arquette), instead. He wants to know where Slater and the coke are; Arquette won’t tell him. He beats her and beats her and beats her and she still defies him.

He’d played heavies before, but this was different in a couple of crucial ways. There’s a glimmer of Tony Soprano’s sexual confidence in the way he plays this scene. There’s a weird flicker of chemistry between him and Arquette, the feeling of a game, of mutuality, at least until he starts hitting her. And even then, he looks at her with a weird affection. A couple of times she almost makes him laugh. And there’s that moment when he tells her that she’s got heart. You believe he means it. He’s still going to kill her — he can afford to personalize this moment, he can let himself be jovial, because he knows he’s incapable of mercy. Ugly, ugly scene. Goes on forever. Memorable enough to shore up even a lesser actor’s place in the Asshole Wing of the “Hey, It’s That Guy” Hall of Fame, especially when you factor in the Tarantino speech he gets to give as he’s tossing the room looking for the coke, about how taking lives gets easier, how he’ll kill people now “just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.”

And then, a few years later, at what should have been the midpoint of a long career, along came the role of a lifetime. Tony Soprano wanted to run North Jersey, and for his sins, they gave it to him. Only one season in, the New York Times suggested that the show “just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” an absurd bit of hyperbole — even with the qualifiers — that Chase & Co. proceeded for all practical purposes to live up to. After the series ended in 2007, its ambiguous finale came to dominate postmortem conversation about the show at the expense of everything that had come before, and by the turn of the decade, arguing for the superiority of one of the dozens of complex serialized dramas that followed in The Sopranos‘ wake — former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, or The Wire, or Deadwood, or Breaking Bad — had become a fashionably contrarian stance to take. There’s always somebody who’ll tell you the Beatles were overrated, too.

Having been a Soprano was a lot like having been a Beatle, or an astronaut; it was hard to know what to do next. Edie Falco could split the atom like a Xanax pill on Nurse Jackie and we still wouldn’t forget Carmela — and in terms of former Sopranos stars on the small screen, that’s the good news. (The less said the better about the fate of Michael Imperioli, recidivist TV substance abuser turned tequila pitchman.) It’s the unfortunate flip side of that connection we feel with beloved television characters. They go on to something different, and it’s like a parent pretending not to know you.

I’m not sure Gandolfini had figured out his next move yet, either. There was another HBO show in the works, a miniseries about a jailhouse attorney; that might have led somewhere. In Not Fade Away, David Chase’s debut feature, he was disarmingly tender. His acrid performance as a martini-swilling hit man was a highlight of the otherwise pompous and punishing Killing Them Softly. And while people complained, not unjustifiably, that his appearance took them out of the movie, I loved his brief turn as a fed-up Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty. It brought to mind his best comedic performance, as the shrewd, genially profane American general in Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, from 2009.

Watching him deliver that acid-bath Iannucci dialogue — I’m particularly fond of “How about you, pussy-drip? You ever kill anyone?” — makes me wonder if there could have been a third act for him as a comedic actor.6 (I’m betting that’ll be Jon Hamm’s exit strategy when it comes time to shake off Don Draper, with his cement overcoat of self-loathing.) Gandolfini sometimes seemed to be carrying around a gravity well of sadness in his barrel chest; among many other things, Tony Soprano was the most fully realized depressed person in the history of television. By all accounts, though, in real life Gandolfini was gentle and slightly neurotic — “a 260-pound Woody Allen” was the line nobody could resist quoting yesterday. I’m not sure if he could have fit into any of the uptight parallel universes where Woody sets his movies these days. But I imagine we’ll see that Woodyish side of him in the as-yet-untitled romantic comedy he and Julia Louis-Dreyfus made for Nicole Holofcener, and that it’ll be tough to watch in ways it wasn’t meant to be. Apart from the fact that the man left a young family behind, that’s the saddest thing about this. We’ll always have Tony Soprano, but we’ll never really know how much else we lost.

Filed Under: Celebrities, James Gandolfini

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.