It is a fate common to great actors whose most enduring success comes on television that the highest praise they receive is actually a trap concealed inside a compliment. Referring to someone’s “iconic role” or “indelible performance” can be a way of saying that a performer could really do only one thing, and his legacy is that he did it perfectly. With the sudden death of James Gandolfini at the horribly young age of 51, all of us who loved and admired his work are, naturally, going to spend a lot of time thinking about The Sopranos, 86 hours of television that was not simply the perfect marriage of actor and role, but the exceedingly rare instance of an actor expanding the possibilities of the medium by the sheer force of his talent, daring, and commitment.
There were many great TV performances before HBO chose Gandolfini over Michael Rispoli and Steven Van Zandt, the other contenders to play New Jersey waste management consultant Tony Soprano, but when viewers saw what Gandolfini was doing with the part that David Chase had given him, it was, in a way, news: The fact that television could accommodate a character like Tony, and a performance like Gandolfini’s made the medium feel bigger, less constrained, more dangerous and exciting. And it wasn’t an illusion: James Gandolfini left television in better shape than it was in when he found it.
Gandolfini’s deep integrity – a quality he brought to every role he played – helped make The Sopranos into an ongoing cliffhanger in which the suspense, over nearly a decade, was not about events so much as about a man’s character. From the first episode, Tony was a man and a monster, a lousy and wonderful dad, a faithless yet vulnerable husband, a killer with a sense of his own confused humanity, and a suburban schmo with the survival instincts of a general in war. We wondered, every week, which Tony would win out, until we began to wonder if what we were seeing was the inevitable, tragic erosion of a flawed man into a sociopath beyond saving. And we wondered not just because of the brilliant writing, but because Gandolfini was an actor who seemed allergic to cheapness, to easy sentiment, to the vanity of wanting to make sure he remained likeable, to telegraphing his distance from the actions of a character he knew the audience might come to hate. If Tony didn’t seem real, there would be no show. And because Gandolfini made him real, we got not just one of the all-time greatest series in the history of the medium, but its offspring as well. Michael Chiklis in The Shield, Jon Hamm in Mad Men and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, as great as they are, have all walked down a road that James Gandolfini paved.
He was almost unfailingly humble about his achievement. “Good writing will bring you to places you don’t even expect sometimes” was the highest praise he allowed himself for his performance. He admitted that living inside Tony’s temper and brutality and volcanic anger took a terrible emotional toll on him and said that he was, finally, glad to let the character go and let the dark places in his own occasionally troubled soul remain unexplored for a while. He loved to act, and if he ever worried that his imposing size, girth and demeanor – not to mention his magnificent ability to play every imaginable nuance of escalating rage – would get him typecast, he never whined about it. Instead, he let his work speak for himself, so eloquently that even if he had never crossed paths with Tony Soprano at all, we would today be mourning the death of one of the subtlest, most versatile, most touchingly human and humane actors in the business. I won’t say “character actor,” because all great actors play characters, and Gandolfini played them with such tough, thoughtful specificity that he was a star – the actor who other actors on the set always ended up watching to see how it was done. See Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, in which his voice alone creates a poignant, enveloping, scary but guileless presence that is as much the distillation of Maurice Sendak’s spirit as any artist has achieved. Or his perfectly realized, crisply caustic U.S. general in In The Loop. Or his cameo as Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty, a scene that could only be played by an actor with the skill and grace to make himself the center of gravity without raising his voice. Or his sterling turn as a witness tormented by his conscience in A Civil Action. Or his return to work for David Chase as a blustery New Jersey suburban dad in Not Fade Away; any other actor might have said, no, I’m not doing that, it’s too close to Tony, but Gandolfini, whose loyalty and generosity are going to be the stuff of many eulogies, simply saw it as an opportunity to create a new character, and did so with a hallmark quality for which he was too rarely praised: Delicacy.
Gandolfini was about to return to work in a limited series for HBO called Criminal Justice. It is selfish to regret that we’ll never have that performance, but great actors make us greedy. He leaves a lot behind, including our wish that he could have given us even more, and our profound gratitude that he gave us as much as he did.