The program's writing and direction was superb, but none of its success or greatness would have been possible without the genius of Gandolfini, who executed on the show's ambition more convincingly than anyone else. His sad eyes signaled a swirl of emotions, his laugh told of the primal joys available in life, and his capacity for rage was terrifying even to those watching on the couch. He became Tony Soprano and Tony Soprano became James Gandolfini.
And who was Tony Soprano, exactly? The show's power rested on the reality that no single adjective could accurately describe him. Not tough, smart, evil, good, soft, hard, selfish, or paternal. He was many things at once: a sentimental bully who genuinely loved his children and used a "pay the bills and put food on the table" philosophy to justify building a criminal empire with murder, theft, and extortion. These contradictions spoke to the contradictions of the American spirit, and that was as much an achievement for Gandolfini as it was for series creator David Chase and his staff of writers.
All of this made a real difference. Citing The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men, novelist Richard Russo called the contemporary era the "golden age of American television." Anyone who believes that Russo is correct must thank The Sopranos for not only preceeding but also parenting the other programs that he enumerates.
Its dark subject matter, rejection of formulaic precedent, and willingness to blur the line between good and evil inspired many imitators--many of them great, but none of them as strong. Gandolfini's performance is the obvious model that Jon Hamm in Mad Men and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad are attempting to follow. While their performances are compelling, they cannot touch Gandolfini's metamorphosis into the original anti-hero of American television.
There was more to him, of course. James Gandolfini was a talented actor with a wide range of roles within him. His scene-stealing performance in the neo noir Killing Them Softly, his evocative portrayal of an internally lost family man in Welcome to the Rileys, and his hilarious take on a moronic general in the satire In the Loop revealed comedic timing, emotional depth, and quiet expressiveness that would have guaranteed him a long and storied Hollywood career.
Gandolfini's untimely and sad death leaves a gigantic void for the rare actor who can play larger than life, working-class characters with authenticity, complexity, and empathy. In his career choices and powerful delivery of those choices, he was one of the few actors left who could truthfully represent the America of Newman and Brando--the America of factory towns, pool halls, smoke-shrouded whiskey bars, and storefronts on Main Street.
His death also guarantees that fans and critics will remember him for his seminal work in the role of Tony Soprano. Gandolfini wanted to gain notoriety beyond The Sopranos, and his ambition was a credit to his creativity. But it is difficult to imagine a legacy more secure or more important than one that comes from masterfully playing a character who embodied the American story in ways reassuring and frightening, and who changed the medium of his art for the better, forever.