James Gandolfini was a singular actor, known for a single role. And since news broke last night that he had died at 51, the remembrances have become intertwined: He was a critical hero for his critically beloved anti-hero Tony Soprano, and so the focus has blurred between the man himself, the man he played, and the mannerisms that changed the way we watch television now and forever. This is the collective story of a man who was not an unburdened counterpart to the mobster he played on screen — it as thought-provoking as it is sad, and it will make you want to watch The Sopranos all over again right now.
The Front Pages
Several papers honored Gandolfini on their covers. But in the words of the New York Times's Dave Itzkoff (who also wrote Gandolfini's obituary) the New York tabloids simply and "sadly say it all this morning."
Tony Soprano's paper, The Star-Ledger — the one he picked up at the end of the driveway in his bathrobe all those mornings — also honored Gandolfini, simply and sadly:
Last night fans gathered at Holsten's, the New Jersey ice cream shop where The Sopranos's final scene was filmed, Seth Abramovitch of The Hollywood Reporter reported. Gandolfini had a table reserved.
Mark Di Ionno of the Star-Ledger recounted his friendship with Gandolfini at Rutgers, and his connection to that distinctive dent in the actor's forehead.
Then there was the time we were having a dart-gun fight and I kicked in the metal door to the room where he was hiding just as he was coming out.
When he came to, I took him to St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick to get his forehead stitched up and paid the bill. It was $25, and worth it just to see the scar on his head during all those close-ups on HBO.
Others have shared a 1988 New York Times article that quoted Gandolfini before he was famous:
Memories of the Man
Gandolfini was not comfortable with fame. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter described the actor's discomfort at the 1999 Television Critics Association Awards:
I walked over to Gandolfini when it was all done, told him congratulations and, looking at him, asked, “It wasn’t that bad, was it?” He laughed, looked around nervously and less than a minute later, said to a nearby HBO publicist -- almost like he was having a panic attack -- “Get me out of here. Get me out of here, now.”
And just like that, he was gone, escorted out of the hotel and back into what he clearly hoped would be some kind of obscurity, where he could just do his job. He wanted to act. Not talk about acting or accept awards for it.
New York TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz shared stories about reporting on Gandolfini and The Sopranos in the early days of the show for the Star-Ledger. Gandolfini had a complicated relationship with the press: He was shy, but both Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall described how he would send Christmas cards to critics. Gandolfini even tried to get out of that first interview with Zoller Seitz, but he came to treat his critics warmly, and they him:
Every time I spoke to him between 1998 and 2006 – the last time I had any contact with the man – he seemed like basically the same guy I’d met that first time, but with more money. I took my brother Richard, a big Sopranos fan, to the season six DVD release party. When he saw me, he acted as if he’d never been happier to see anyone. He grabbed me in a headlock and gave me noogies like Bill Murray torturing Gilda Radner on the old Saturday Night Live and crowed, “Hoah! What happened to all your hair?”
“What happened to all your hair?” I shot back lamely, pulling free of his grip.
“Look at this fuckin’ guy, with the banter,” he said to the room at large.
The Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan also described Gandolfini's critical embrace. She met him at an HBO party, wanting to talk about the documentary he produced, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.
I do recall telling Gandolfini that, as the daughter of a Marine, I appreciated his work with the military (several of the veterans, by the way, were at the HBO party, and the ones I chatted with all spoke highly of Gandolfini and were still in touch with him well after filming had wrapped). I said that, given the level of celebrity he had after the "Sopranos," I was impressed that he had used it for something so worthwhile and thoughtful.
At that, Gandolfini, who had been humble and friendly throughout our short conversation, gave me such a big hug that he lifted me off my feet. I am not a small person, I should add.
The Relationship with Tony
But there are also descriptions of the toll playing his famous role took on him. The New Yorker's David Remnick writes of watching Gandolfini at work:
Gandolfini was filming a scene in the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. He was in a foul mood, and, to make matters worse, Bracco was determined to use every means, including a whoopee cushion, to crack him up and destroy the scenes. As he blew take after take, Gandolfini seemed about to launch into a Soprano-level fit. But he kept at it, screaming at himself between takes to bear down, to concentrate. A rare moment on a set when the actor performs not only the role but what is required for it.
And GQ was already scheduled to run Brett Martin's story about the circumstances surrounding Gandolfini's disappearance from filming in its July issue. For an online version released after his death, Martin wrote a note about Gandolfini's death:
We can't know, certainly not yet and maybe not ever, to what extent the strain of work contributed to Gandolfini's death yesterday. The following story—which was already on stands when the news broke—suggests what a struggle it could be for him. The best piece of evidence for his legacy may be that the people for whom his fits and absences made life most difficult were the same people, to a man and woman, who regarded him with the most compassion and admiration. They forgave him and they loved him.
And, yes, many tributes focused on Gandolfini's singular bravura. Time's James Poniewozik explained that "without Tony, there would be no Walter White, no Vic Mackey, no Carrie Mathison." He goes on:
His was an amazingly delicate performance for a big guy. Those eyes. Gandolfini could concentrate all of Tony’s physicality and criminal cunning into them, as those black pellets darted about and he conceived a lie to tell Carmela, or a way out of a business bind. That a man with such a hulking physicality — a presence that was itself essential to the character — could convey so much through such minute gestures was like watching a giant sit and play a virtuosic Goldberg Variations on a toy piano.
Marc Tracy at The New Republic described how, for him, it was impossible to disassociate Gandolfini from Tony:
One measure of the greatness of Gandolfini’s sustained performance, over 86 long episodes, is that on those rare occasions when Tony’s viewpoint is not the show’s viewpoint—when Melfi is raped, and Tony wants to know what's happened; when Carmela goes to see a psychiatrist, who tells her to leave Tony, and then has to see Tony again; when Meadow runs into Tony at a club and he appears to be on coke—it almost turns into a second show. He pulls those scenes off, in other words, but that is only impressive because most of the show is something like a work of P.O.V. There is just nothing else like it.
Slate's Jessica Winter wrote about how Gandolfini transcended typecasting:
It is one thing for an actor to be typecast; it is another for an actor to become synonymous with a character who transforms an entire medium, upending its fealty to tidy character arcs, moral score-setting, and conventional aesthetics.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.