In the 21 years since James Gandolfini acted in his first feature film, the state of television has changed completely. It is now seen as a creative form equal to motion pictures. It is the home of some of the finest modern art of this century. It is the defining modern leisure pursuit of a generation, the “box-set generation”, whose conversation at dinner tables will undoubtedly at some point come around to “what are you watching at the moment?” TV is credible. And one person sits at the head of the table, his position indisputable: Tony Soprano, the greatest character of the greatest TV series played by the greatest TV actor of all time.
James Gandolfini’s death yesterday at the age of 51 was a shock. As sorrowful tributes pour in, it’s clear that his fans and colleagues held him in extraordinarily high esteem. If you’ve seen The Sopranos, you’ll know why. Without wanting to brush over his other work, Gandolfini’s role as the mob boss in the HBO series was his most successful. It’s why we feel like someone we actually know has passed away.
Tony Soprano was the first HBO anti-hero. Before Don Draper, before Walter White, before McNulty, Gandolfini played a character so enigmatic and utterly hypnotising. He is gentle and brutally sadistic. He is loyal and horrendously unfaithful. He is dishonest and true. He is charming and a revolting hypocrite. He’d drown, suffocate and bludgeon men but loves feeding the ducks. He is a narcissist trying to look after his family, a gentle killer you want to befriend despite being an asshole. A psychiatrist’s dream/nightmare, the mob boss has a bible of personality disorders, revealed in his sessions with Dr Melfi.
Gandolfini’s talent lies in bringing realism and instinct to a character so enigmatic on paper it sounds absurd. But he could speak volumes with one loud nostril exhale, a tense of the neck muscles, minute move of his lips or a flash of his doleful eyes. It is pure Shakespeare to watch his existential crisis unfold on screen. Why so powerful? Well, he gave a glimpse into how it worked in a conversation with Matt Zoller Seitz from New York Magazine:
The character is a good fit. Obviously, I’m not a mobster, and there’s other aspects of the guy I’m not familiar with, like how comfortable he is with violence. But in most of the ways that count, I have to say, yeah — the guy is me
As with most people, the three months I spent bingeing on Sopranos a couple of years ago was one of the most thrilling, absorbing and happiest times of my life. As well as David Chase and his team, that’s down, most of all, to James Gandolfini, the ex-bartender from New Joisey.
The word genius is overused, but it’s apt here. There has been no TV actor quite like him, before and after. So grab some gabagool or moozadel and remember some of Gandolfini’s finest moments.