An actor who changed acting — and all of popular culture — has died. Deadline first reported, and HBO then confirmed, that James Gandolfini died while on vacation in Rome at age 51 on Wednesday.
If you remember the world before The Sopranos, you probably didn't know who Gandolfini was then — even if you'd seen him beating up Patricia Arquette in True Romance, or any of the other medium-sized to tiny roles he'd played as a character actor before The Sopranos premiered in 1999. It's hard to imagine that someone as physically imposing as Gandolfini could be in the background of things, but until David Chase came along to cast him as Tony, that was the story of his career.
And so a generic Italian-American tough guy then became an iconic one. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini seemed to act with every cell in his body. He talked out of the corner of his mouth. He changed his voice; the New Jersey-born Gandolfini certainly had a Jersey accent, but it wasn't Tony's. Gandolfini recessed the slightly metallic tone of his normal voice in favor of a thug who said "deese" and "dose" and dropped his 'G's in gerunds. Even with his breathing he made Tony into a corporeal human being. I'm sure I wasn't alone in hearing his labored pauses and wondering whether Tony had a deviated septum. (I don't remember ever wondering the same about Gandolfini.)
This scene from the first season's finale, "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano," is my favorite of the millions — literally — of wonderful moments the show and Gandolfini had.
Having found out his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), was behind an attempt on his life, he goes to kill her, only to find out she's had a stroke. As she's being wheeled away, Tony gets really close to her, first threatening her quietly — and then he absolutely loses it. Livia, one of the great villains of all time, doesn't speak a word or even move during the scene — her face is, after all, covered with an oxygen mask. We know that Tony is right; Livia is smiling and taunting him, but he seems insane. Livia's won again. Tony walks away, defeated; Gandolfini rounded his shoulders and, from the back, appears to look so squarely at the floor it's hard to imagine he can see where he's going.
Amazing, transformative, and historic acting.
His post-Sopranos career turned out to be horrifyingly and unfairly short. Among his notable projects was a 2007 HBO documentary called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, in which Gandolfini, the executive producer, interviewed Iraq veterans. Toward the beginning of the documentary, Gandolfini thanks each of them. He shakes their hands, and he embraces some of them. You can imagine that some of them must have been thinking, Wow, Tony Soprano!
But that guy was gone. Gandolfini had receded again.
The end of that first-season finale of The Sopranos closes with Tony and his family at Artie's restaurant during a blackout. He looks at his kids and makes a toast. "Someday soon, you're gonna have families of your own. And if you're lucky, you'll remember the little moments like this — that were good."
Gandolfini's death is a horrible loss. We'll have to spend some time remembering those little moments he gave us. Which were great.