James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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