There have been a number of terrific things written about James Gandolfini since his death yesterday. Below, please find excerpts from some of the best, as well as thoughts from the UPROXX staff.
When I moved to New York in 2002 The Sopranos had been on the air for a handful of years and the entire city was captivated by the show. Everyone in the cast, even just guys who had bit parts here and there, were treated like rock stars. Page Six was regularly filled with cast member sightings. I remember seeing the little sh*t who played AJ out ALL THE TIME and he was always given the royal treatment whenever he was, in addition to being surrounded by pretty girls. Wisely, a lot of cast members seemed to know that what they were experiencing was probably fleeting it and they were trying to soak up every ounce of it. They were at every premiere, every gallery opening, etc. They were ubiquitous. You couldn’t walk down the street most days without running into someone who was on the show. However, one person from the show remained elusive to me: Gandolfini. As badly as I wanted to experience a Tony Soprano sighting, I never saw the guy at all in the first few years I lived in the city, nor did I hear much about friends seeing him out and about.
Then one day in 2006 or 2007, when the show was nearing the end of its run, I was walking south on West Broadway early on a weekend morning and, as I approached Prince Street, I noticed Gandolfini walking toward me accompanied by a kid, presumably his son. For a rare moment I felt starstruck — by this point I’d lived in New York for a few years and had become numb to randomly running into famous people on the street — and simply couldn’t take my eyes off of him as he walked towards me. But as he got closer it dawned on me that he looked PISSED, and I was sure that it was because I was making eye contact with him. “Oh my God he’s pissed that I recognize him and am awed by his presence,” I thought.
But then we passed each other and after he was behind me I turned around to get one last look at him and when I did I noticed two paparazzi photographers were set up with cameras down the block behind me. So it was those guys he was pissed about seeing, and not me, all along. At least that’s what I’ve convinced myself of anyway.
In television, as in life, you tend to remember the big moments, and the big moments on The Sopranos were really, really big. You can probably list off 8 or 10 of them right now, even if you haven’t watched an episode since the finale cut to black just over six years ago. But the show was really about the small moments: the family dinners, the arguments over little things, the throwaway jokes, the never-ending ball-busting, etc. Those were the moments that made The Sopranos a compelling show, as opposed to yet another watered down Godfather knockoff about mobsters filling each other with lead. And those were the moments where James Gandolfini put on a show.
Take the short scene I posted above. It’s basically Tony Soprano in a nutshell. In just two minutes he moves from “guy with opinions on orange juice” to “guy who’s not sure why is wife is angry” to “dad who’s angry at his kids for not taking advantage of all the things his hark work has made available to them” to “cold-blooded mobster.” He was complicated. So was James Gandolfini, sometimes. I miss both of them very much today.
Josh, in his post about a trip to Holsten’s:
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?
While I can talk for days about my love for True Romance and especially the incredibly violent bathroom fight scene between James Gandolfini and Patricia Arquette, I always thought that his most underrated performance was as a gay hitman in the otherwise forgettable The Mexican. Despite the fact that it had Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, The Mexican was mostly panned, which was a shame if only because it meant that people overlooked Gandolfini’s fantastic performance. He managed to make me care a hell of a lot more about a murderer than about the actual love story at the center of the film.
Gandolini had a knack for stealing a scene, too, as The Last Castle was another underrated favorite of mine. I can describe every pathetic scowl on Colonel Winter’s face while barely remembering anything about Robert Redford as… whatever his character’s name was. Few actors ever went toe-to-toe with legends like Redford and Pitt and looked like the bigger star. Gandolfini did.
When I was sixteen or so I watched True Romance for the first time. I had just become enamored with Pulp Fiction and wanted to consume all things Tarantino now that the video store allowed me to rent whatever I desired. During that brutal and now iconic Gandolfini-Arquette scene I remember thinking for the first time ever with an adult sensibility, “Man, this guy is putting on a menacing bad guy clinic. This is brilliant.” A younger version of myself would have been all, “this is evil I hope she kills him this is creepy,” without thinking once about the work behind the role, but Gandolfini’s oddly captivating performance opened me up to a new appreciation for character acting and the antagonist.
Little did I know at the time what I was discovering was a prelude to the ultimate anti-hero who would shortly thereafter forever re-shape how I’m compelled to watch television.
Alan Sepinwall at HitFix:
We had been told all our lives that we would not watch an ongoing series about such a man. A bruising, foul-mouthed giant with a dent in his forehead was the villain, not the protagonist. TV had always made compromises, always made sure that “flawed” heroes were ultimately redeemable and lovable.
Tony Soprano was not. And we loved him, often despite ourselves.
Much of the credit for the show, and the character, comes from “Sopranos” creator David Chase, but Chase has said that Tony wasn’t fully-formed until Gandolfini was cast in the role.
Matt Zoller Seitz, in a touching tribute at Vulture:
There was no blowout premiere party for season one of The Sopranos because nobody had any idea how big it would become. Season two was a different story. HBO rented out Radio City Music Hall. The cast and crew and executives arrived in limousines, as is customary. James Gandolfini arrived in a yellow cab.
At the after-party, I asked him why.
“My family’s here,” he said. “My friends are here. Guys I grew up with are here. Some of them came by train or by the subway to get here, or they drove three hours in a van or whatever. What are they gonna think if they see me getting out of a limo?”
David Remnick at The New Yorker:
As the seasons passed, Gandolfini gained weight at an alarming pace. His death, at the age of fifty-one, in Italy, does not come entirely as a shock. But that makes it no less a loss. Gandolfini was not a fantastically varied actor. He played within a certain range. Like Jackie Gleason, he’ll be remembered for a particular role, and a particular kind of role, but there is no underestimating his devotion to the part of a lifetime that was given to him. In the dozens of hours he had on the screen, he made Tony Soprano—lovable, repulsive, cunning, ignorant, brutal—more ruthlessly alive than any character we’ve ever encountered in television.
Brett Martin at GQ, in an intro to a brand new article about Gandolfini and The Sopranos:
Anybody who has ever been on a TV or movie set knows there is no place more guaranteed to exterminate any sense of romance about TV and the movies. Not so when Gandolfini was shooting, say, an ordinary family dinner scene of The Sopranos. Every take, and there were always dozens, would be just a little bit different. Every line delivery bringing up another subtle shade or variation of the character he had so come to embody. And each time, you could tell, required a return journey into that character as real and visceral as the plate of spaghetti and braciole he would dig into again and again and again. It was hypnotizing. It was exhausting.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that if Gandolfini had not gotten the role of Tony Soprano—as, by all rights of all television rules ever written, he shouldn’t have—and attacked it with such gusto, television would not be what it is today. Without an actor capable of finding Tony’s melancholy, his soulfulness, his absurdity and his rage, the era of TV antiheroes may never have found its foothold. In interviews, which he did his very best to avoid, the actor would often fall back on some version of “I’m just a dumb, fat guy from Jersey.” “That’s bullshit,” David Chase once told me, with an affectionate chuckle. “Jim knows damned well what he’s doing. He knows.”
Heather Havrilesky at Salon:
Gandolfini intuitively understood that when you stripped away Tony’s power and money and brute strength, what you got was something between a clown and a lost little boy. For a thuggish guy like Gandolfini to call up such vulnerability and unsteadiness was simply transfixing. The smallest little fumbling motion with those bear-paw hands, the slightest hunch, the sweetest glimmer of regret in those eyes – Gandolfini made us feel heartbroken over Tony, even when he was messing up or pushing away everyone he loved. Gandolfini made “The Sopranos” feel much richer and deeper and more poignantly tragic than a series about modern-day mobsters had any right to be.
Chase and Gandolfini effectively rewired our synapses around TV protagonists, demonstrating how oddly familiar and palpable a complexly layered antihero could become over the course of several seasons. TV writers and actors have been struggling to mimic and re-create and recapture Tony’s conflicted darkness ever since, but there can only be one Tony Soprano.
James Poniewozick at Time:
James Gandolfini was our usher into that new TV era, by taking a performance that could have been cartoonish (remember Analyze This?) and making it psychologically layered and unshakeable. This was a man who could show us a brute throttling a Mafia turncoat while looking at colleges with his daughter and make us think: I want to know this guy better. He could lead us, mildly contemplating an onion ring, to the finale’s famous cut-to-black, to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and leave us wondering whether he lived or died, and what he deserved, and what it all meant.
And finally, Sopranos creator David Chase:
“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 [his 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.”
Photo credit: HBO