The news that actor James Gandolfini died yesterday, at a too-young 51 years old, was certainly sad and in many ways shocking. A gifted and seemingly kind and humble actor, Gandolfini represented everything we love about the idea of the workman actor, rather than the flashy celebrity who happens to show up in movies and TV shows once in a while. It's undeniably sad, in a faraway, "most of us didn't know him" sense, that he's so suddenly gone. But what is it about James Gandolfini, or more likely about his most famous character Tony Soprano, that, in the wake of his death, seems to have endeared him so intensely to so many people?
Well, I suppose the easiest answer is that America loves a gangster. The seedy underbelly, the life of crime, the dastardly deeds done under a hushed code of honor. There's something both scrappy and oddly elegant about the Don Corleones and Henry Hills of the world — they travel the wild, fast-lane to the American Dream, they're tough and exciting, as we'd all like ourselves to be sometimes. Tony Soprano fit into this world, but of course what Sopranos creator David Chase did, with Gandolfini leading the charge, was delve deeper into a gangster's psyche than perhaps ever before, giving us 86 sprawling episodes that brought us ever closer toward the heart of darkness, but also toward enlightenment. We truly got to know this gangster, and eventually came to see in him what I think we'd always suspected was there: ourselves.