The last time I “saw” James Gandolofini, in so much as you can meet someone you’ve never actually met, was late last year, in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. It’s an angry film that made basically no money because it was a movie that actively wanted to make no money — the characters practically screamed at the audience to stop being such dumb f*cks — but it was excellent. I’d strongly recommend getting drunk on whiskey and seeing it, if only to see James Gandolfini’s astonishing performance as Mickey, a New York-based hit man. He was a gross character, and that’s how Gandolfini played him; noisy breathing was always a part of the actor’s repertoire, but Tony Soprano sounded like Elliott Smith compared to the Iron Maiden that escaped from Mickey’s nose with every breathe.
A part of me is terrified to rewatch Gandolfini’s scenes in the film, considering. You never want to assume, but when you hear about a 51-year-old man dying of a heart attack, your mind can’t help but to wander, to think of every scene on The Sopranos where Tony ate a little too much gabagool (sales of which have either plummeted or skyrocketed).
But Gandolfini’s physical appearance wasn’t the only thing that made him one of the finest actors TV has ever seen, or will ever see — it was in those “sad eyes,” to quote creator David Chase, and the way he could flip between likable teddy bear and ferocious murderer, sometimes in the same scene. Many guys looked the part of a fearsome mobster, but none had the same warmth as Gandolfini. Before Tony Soprano, I never really thought about actors, or at least I never paid much attention to them. The best TV actors were good, but rarely better than that; there was certainly nothing transcendental that could be found on NBC or even HBO. Then came The Sopranos, and with it, The Golden Age of TV. Without Tony, there’d be no Don Draper, no Walter White, no Elizabeth Jennings, no hundreds of damaged characters we root for despite ourselves. Much of that credit goes to Chase and his writing staff, obviously, but it wouldn’t have been possible with Gandolfini’s Tony, who you were supposed to root against…and yet. How can a man who gets duck-induced panic attacks be evil?
That “and yet” is what makes TV as great as it is today. Gandolfini might be known to some as That F*cking Guy, Bear from Get Shorty, or The Man Who Was Born to Smoke Big Fat Cigars, but to me, he’ll always be known as The Face That Made TV Matter. Which is why I had to visit a little restaurant in New Jersey.
A few years ago for my birthday, my girlfriend and I rented a car and drove from Brooklyn to Bloomfield, New Jersey, the location of the infamous Holsten’s. It’s where Tony Soprano was gunned down in “Made in America.” I mean, it’s where Tony, Carmela, A.J., and Meadow, whose parallel parking skills I really relate to, enjoyed a nice plate of onion rings — “the best in the state,” according to the Big Man himself. Holsten’s feels like it’s from another time: it’s quaint, unassuming, and plain, everything Tony isn’t, which is why it was the perfect locale for the scene. “Remember the good times,” A.J. says, replaying advice Tony had once given him, advice that Tony has forgotten, because you never know when they’re going to end and when life will shoot you in the head.
Life was pretty sh*tty for me when I visited Holsten’s. I had just graduated from college, didn’t have a job, was living in my best friend’s dead grandmother’s house in the north Bronx, was sleeping in the dead grandmother’s bed (sans dead grandmother), and I was working the overnight shift at a clothing store, folding jeans that would eventually reek of Axe Body Spray and stale Corona. But that’s not what I focus on anymore — I “remember the good times,” like sitting in the same (now reserved) booth, on the same side as Tony, looking at the jukebox and seeing that “Don’t Stop Believin'” wasn’t in it, going to the men’s bathroom to see if there was anywhere to stash a gun, picking up postcards for The Sopranos Lookalikes, and having those “best in the state” onion rings (they’re pretty good).
I remember the pictures in the restaurant, showing a glowing Sopranos cast, with Gandolfini always right in the middle of the action. He was notoriously press shy, but at Holsten’s, he was among his people, the working class Jersey folk, and although things didn’t end well for Tony there, they were pretty great for Gandolfini. R.I.P.