The last time I wrote anything on this little blog was when I felt compelled to post a brief compilation of quotes in honor of Roger Ebert. And now another hard-hitting death compels me to dust off the cobwebs of this long-dormant digital journal. The movie industry lost so much this year. Both of these losses alone will be deeply felt for years to come. Like so many of his other fans, James Gandolfini’s sudden death of a heart attack at age 51 has rattled me to my core.
So many thoughts swirled my head.
He died too young.
He left us a legacy of amazing performances.
I can’t imagine what his teenage son, who vacationing with him at the time, must be going through right now.
He was only 37 when he debuted as Tony Soprano. For some reason, that blows my mind. Maybe I always blindly assumed Tony Soprano was in his later 40s.
The common thought among mourners of those who die young is: what if he hadn’t peaked yet? What if, had he lived on, Tony Soprano was not his most iconic role? What if Gandolfini lived to be 81 and gave us 30 more years of indelible performances and memorable characters? What if?
All of the tributes I’ve read in the last few days say one thing: he was a big-hearted, kind man who touched so many lives. As an actor, as a family man, as a colleague. I really wish I had known him.
I also wish I had the chance to see him in theatre. I’m sure his magnetism was palpable on stage. Perusing through his filmography does offer comfort. I had seen and admired most of his work and I get a sense of fullness over his remarkable career in acting. He may always be remembered as Tony Soprano — which isn’t a knock; that role was a stunning achievement — but he left us with a treasure trove of smaller, indelible performances.
Two of my favorites roles in his pre-Sopranos era:
As Eddie in the hypnotic, trashy thriller The Juror, Gandolfini gave us a henchman we really empathized. In his little bit of screen time, we got the sense that Eddie did not enjoy working with such evil men (notably Alec Baldwin). When he lent a helping hand to our heroine (Demi Moore), I was moved. He wasn’t suddenly a “good guy” but you know he wanted to do the right thing. I got a jolt when his grim fate was revealed. Gandolfini managed to get this small, throwaway character under my skin.
In True Romance, a classic on so many levels, he played Virgil, a different kind of henchman, one with the blackest of hearts. Virgil was a frightening man and in his electrifying motel room showdown with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), I was floored by the amount of anger and hatred you can see in Virgil. There was no empathizing with this guy. You loved it when he got his due.
Nothing beats his work as Tony Soprano. In 86 episodes, Gandolfini has created a character so very few people in this world can do. I was a fan of the show and watched it every week without missing a beat, but I never truly loved The Sopranos. I had problems with it but Gandolfini was the one who kept me glued. I came back for him. I was in awe of what he was able to give us week after week. Only Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad has ever matched that level of quality acting on TV. No one else even comes close. And Cranston pointed out after he learned of Gandolfini’s death: “I owe him. If not for Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White.”
We all owe him, quite frankly, a debt of gratitude. He may have left us too soon, but he leaves us with hours and hours of high-class acting. After you pore through his best work in that iconic HBO series, you’ll find gems in his movie work. Welcome to the Riley’s. The Taking of Pelham 123. Crimson Tide. Get Shorty. In the Loop. A Civil Action. The Last Castle. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Zero Dark Thirty. Where The Wild Things Are. All of these may not be great, but they are each very special. They offer us glimpses of a master at work. A master whose performances will forever live on.