I’m still in stunned disbelief over James Gandolfini passing away last week. It’s like when this happened to John Ritter 10 years ago this year, the sudden, almost magician vanishing act-likr quick yet utterly tragic now you see him, now you don’t that Gandolfini also seemingly went through. Unlike a death where there was time affixed to it, and one laid up in a hospital bed withering away as their inner and outer framework slowly shatters, the death of The Sopranos star was as shattering for its unexpected abruptness as the death itself.
I make no bones about what an unabashed fan of The Sopranos I am AND a fan of the overall mafia/real gangster genre in general. From Paul Muni to George Raft; Jimmy Cagney to Lee J. Cobb’s turn as the heavy in On the Waterfront; from Marlon Brando as evil with a heart of gold patriarchal Vito Corleone in the original Godfather film to Al Pacino as the sibling successor in the latter two; Robert DeNiro’s portrayals of small time hoods with Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese productions; to James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.
For Gandolfini, the lineage is there but in a way also down a line of two particularly also rotund, also spellbinding actors, albeit in genres decidedly different than the one that Gandolfini made his bones in: Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) and Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker (All In The Family). Those two aforementioned mandarins of legendary television have a sort of communal DNA with Tony Soprano. It’s not that farfetched – all were overweight, head strong characters who bit off more than they could chew and at face value seemed to be totally in control in their surroundings but in fact were always losing control. Only Tony Soprano had the guts and balls to be able to live in a fantasy TV world where he could be uncensored. Gleason lived in an time where that simply wasn’t the case and O’Connor’s era opened the door that Gandolfini was able to walk through and do the things he did.
Some might take this the wrong way – and it’s not my intention – but there was something extra special being a Sopranos fan and one who held the character of Tony Soprano in high reverence, AND being born in either New York City or New Jersey. It’s just the way it is, there’s like an extra special mustard people feel from those places who embrace Mob-style literature, or certain artistic cultures in the urban sense, be it on the silver screen, the small screen, or the printed page. Semi-related case in point: When Beastie Boy MCA died in 2012, the world mourned for sure, but Brooklyn wept just a little bit more. Of course, people from coast to coast had validity in their creations of fan bases for the band, but I can guarantee you that Brooklyn felt just a little bit more of a sort of unspoken entitlement from it. It’s like North Carolina-ites holding the special place of reverence for Basketball monarch Michael Jordan, or Liverpool holding The Beatles in the extra regard. There’s something about being born in New York or New Jersey and watching actors portray Mafioso types that just seems to have a synchronicity kind of spellbinding symmetry between actor and fan. They get not only the milieu and minutiae and the dialogue, but they also get the smells, the sounds, the nuances, the scope, and limited and limitless vision. The scripts of these Mafia productions are unapologetically East Coast in their narratives and character demeanor and portrayal; references to West Coast or Middle America in these types of productions are usually done in humorously slandering libelous manners, a freshness of the brutal honesty and candor portrayed on screen.
With brutal honesty yet candor in some bizarre way, nobody could manifest that like James Gandolfini did as Tony Soprano. In the days after his death, social media walls were choked with “the other things Gandolfini did,” like his woman-beating character in True Romance or maybe as Geena Davis’ brother in Angie, but let’s get real, nobody really gave much of a lick about those other performances. Not to take anything away from them, but Gandolfini IS, WAS, and will ALWAYS BE Tony Soprano. And that isn’t a stereotype in order, that’s a career flesh and blood three dimensional role that millions of actors will never even see a scratched surface of in terms of a comparison in what they do. The role and chance of an actor’s lifetime, there’s a good reason why he won three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the Cosa Nostra kingpin, because he didn’t just put on the Mafia voice and become Tony, he sweated Tony, breathed life into him like a dragon waking up; he threw venom mixed with honey and washed down with amaretto and the finest red wine exported from Sicily as the main ingredients as to why the show and his career, suddenly catapulted to stratospheric success not long after its debut on HBO in 1999. He played Tony Soprano with such wit and such intelligence, and he never made him maudlin or pathetic, even if sometimes the situations around him were. He always knew the stakes at hand with the character, and he played Tony so blindly original (with the rest of the cast rotating around Gandolfini’s axis), that you sometimes almost got the sense that you were watching a reality show documentary, rather than a “Mafiosoap Opera.”
And now he’s gone. Vanished just like that. Like shaking an Etch-A-Sketch to erase the picture that was there prior. It’s like witnessing a blank screen, just seeing a television set with the coaxial cable removed, no hook up, just the white screen blaring the diffusing, grating white noise in perpetuity. In a way, it was like that when The Sopranos ended its run, when millions of viewers were annoyed at the abrupt ending — the quick black screen which came on during the final scene, and left a lot of questions unanswered in many ways. Now, of course, those questions might remain unanswered forever, and in a strange way, the abruptness of not knowing what happened to Tony has been usurped forever by the abruptness of knowing instantly the tragedy that happened to James Gandolfini. The way The Sopranos ended is eerily like how Gandolfini’s life ended – sudden, quick, and ripple-effecting among the world of shaking of ones noggin and a constant sad muttering of “What the Fuck?” in utter disbelief, sadness, and shattered energy.
The Sopranos was already a dark, sinister, tongue in cheek and corpse in face program. It now adds even more of a dark dimension with the tragic death of James Gandolfini. His work will remain on high forever, and the beauty of seeing him shift so many tonal and emotional gears as the character over the 80-plus episodes of the show will be even more revered now than ever. Death has a way of doing that. But it also and ultimately has a way of taking our breath away at a moment’s notice, whether we are in a restaurant (where I heard the news for the first time when a buddy called me on the cell phone as I was having dinner with my 11-year-old daughter) or on line in a bank, or waiting to see a movie, or just random surfing on the net until one came across the news.
To those who loved him and The Sopranos, this is a death that will haunt all of us throughout the summer and beyond. An immense loss of one of television’s greatest all-time talents, who gave life to a character who was so much more larger than life. As James Gandolfini now passes into mythical and legendary status, we shrink ever so more, ever so slightly as we lament the tragic circumstances we are left with. But the art and talent we are left with will never shrink or diminish, and the beauty of media and mediums is the ability to do that. Forget about all the paparazzi and hype and stars who are churned out through revolving doors, and blockbusters that make $9 billion in the first hour on a Friday night. Good old Tinseltown still knows how to groom real talent when it sees it, it still has a sixth sense of finding talent that can transcend the pomp and fluffy circumstance, it still can surprise us by giving total, 100 percent quality in what it does and can do. James Gandolfini remains a figurehead for the beauty of knowing just what a reality that can be indeed and a figurehead and a major influence for someone who was able to keep a renewed faith and vision in the Hollywood machine and keep it running streamlined and smooth for as long as he did with his flawless skills as being one of the great American actors of all time on one of the best American television programs of all time. He will be missed dearly.
As Joni Mitchell gloriously sang once, “You Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone.” And if you listen closely, you can already hear the Hollywood machine wobbling. It knows what’s gone. And in a rare turn of events, it even knew what it had.