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James Gandolfini, who reinvented TV as mob boss Tony Soprano, has died at age 51



For an actor whose work inspired a golden age of television antiheroes, James Gandolfini seemed a man supremely uncomfortable with the fan adoration and acclaim which came with the job.

Still, as word spread of Gandolfini’s death Wednesday of a suspected heart attack, admirers everywhere crowded Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, TV reports and interviews with kind words for the actor, whose portrayal of balding, beefy mobster Tony Soprano on HBO’s mob drama The Sopranos revolutionized television.


“I’m floored and devastated,” said Dean Norris, a co-star on the AMC series Breaking Bad who plays a follically-challenged, beefy politician villain in the upcoming CBS miniseries, Under the Dome.

Norris, who was scheduled to talk about his own work with me, learned about Gandolfini's death from his wife moments before our interview began and couldn't shake the sorrow. “I was out in California for a long time and in TV you had be a model to get on TV," Norris recalled. "(Gandolfini) was a guy that guys who looked like me saw and said ‘Okay, he’s not a model. He’s just good.’”

Gandolfini, 51, died in Italy of a suspected heart attack, according to HBO. He was scheduled to participate in the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, called the towering actor a brother in a statement published by Entertainment Weekly. "“He was a genius,” Chase said. “Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For (wife Deborah Lin) and (children) Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”

Despite recent roles in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Gandolfini was best known for his eight years spent playing troubled mob boss Tony Soprano, a ruthless criminal given to panic attacks who could only be intimidated by his wife and overbearing mother.

A New Jersey native who attended Rutgers University and managed nightclubs before going into acting, Gandolfini wasn’t the first choice to play Soprano; Chase was initially more interested in hiring longtime Bruce Springsteen guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt. But Gandolfini had already played similar roles in films such as True Romance and Get Shorty, quickly becoming Chase’s pick to inhabit the mobster.

“People would probably never say this, but I think the character of Tony, David Chase and myself a have a sense of self loathing that we share in common,” Gandolfini said, quoted in the 2000 book The Sopranos: A Family History. “Which is the only way that character works. I think he (Chase) can write it, I can play it  and Tony has it. It all kind of works out in the end. It’s a good thing.”

Allen Rucker, the book’s author, explained it to me more simply: “This is the first self-reflective mobster in the history of television…Somebody asked me why The Sopranos was successful -- I say because it’s two shows: It’s a Mafia show and it’s a show about a family with the intimacy of Edward Albee.”

The success of The Sopranos fueled the success of HBO, which went on to break the mold for typical television with shows such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. At their heart was a kind of character American TV audiences had never seen rendered so visibly: the antihero.

Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was the first and best of this bunch, a sociopathic criminal who would have been a villain in a more traditional story.  But Chase and Gandolfini humanized his character, turning him into an unlikely sex symbol for some and a cherished hero for others; capable of taking his daughter on a college tour one moment, and killing a snitch he discovers near the school in another.

Look across the TV dial now, and you see such characters everywhere; from the meth-dealing former high school teacher Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad to the serial killer of other murderers on Showtime’s Dexter and the biker gang at the heart of FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

These shows aped The Sopranos in other ways; featuring leading men who aren’t beautiful, storylines which don’t end neatly, episodes packed with dense storytelling and details requiring close viewer attention, along with shorter seasons of 13 episodes which could be separated by many months.

But the role could take its toll on Gandofini. In a new book on the rise of quality TV shows such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad called Difficult Men, author Brett Martin describes the actor sometimes failing to show for work, struggling to deal with fame and tortured by the strain of inhabiting the character at times.

“Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom box radio,” Martin wrote in the book, due for publication next month. “To anybody who had witnessed the actor’s self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera – he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head – it was a plausible scenario.”

Still, Gandolfini’s achievements brought a Golden Globe award, three Emmy awards and the respect of a host of fellow performers and stars.

“Great actor, better person,” tweeted comic Denis Leary, who also posted a picture of his sisters with the actor at a charity event. “You are so loved and admired…I hope somehow you know that,” added actress Kirstie Alley on her own Twitter feed.

Gandolfini and his wife, ex-model Deborah Lin, welcomed a baby girl last October; he also has a son with ex-wife Marcy Wudarski, according to the New York Daily News.

In the end, Gandolfini lived one of the biggest ironies of show business; an actor known as shy and often soft-spoken off screen, with a bombastic, game-changing impact on the acting world and television itself.

Be warned, the second clip has some NSFW langauge.

[Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 7:13am]


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