James Gandolfini died of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday while on vacation in Italy. He was 51 years old, which is far, far too young — but he leaves behind both a remarkable career and a remarkable life.
Let's start with the obvious. James Gandolfini simply can't be separated from his leading role as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, which catapulted him from small but memorable roles in films like True Romance and Get Shorty into the mainstream. And the HBO show didn't just transform Gandolfini from supporting player to leading man; it transformed television itself.
It's impossible to overstate the part The Sopranos played in defining the modern TV landscape, though countless articles have attempted to do so. But for all the show's strengths, the whole series would have floundered without the right man in the lead. Gandolfini's performance is one of those rare, spectacular times when an actor is so perfect for a role that their work actually lives up to the oft-repeated cliché: A role someone was born to play.
Gandolfini's performance as Tony Soprano is so indelible that on Wednesday night — more than six years after The Sopranos went off the air — Holsten's, the New Jersey restaurant where the instantly polarizing, instantly legendary final scene in the HBO series was filmed, was packed with fans. The booth occupied by Gandolfini and his TV family was empty, marked by a "Reserved" sign. The Sopranos is the linchpin of Gandolfini's legacy; when you've delivered one of the most singular and impressive performances in television history, you deserve to be remembered for it, and it's clear that he always will be.
But as I reflected on Gandolfini's impressive body of work, I was surprised to find my mind drifting away from The Sopranos. I'd love to share my favorite scene from The Sopranos with you, but I couldn't begin to choose. (If you have the time, just commit the next 86 hours of your life to watching the whole series again.) Instead, I'd like to highlight a performance that relatively few have seen — the opening musical number from 2005's Romance & Cigarettes, in which he leads a chorus of blue-collar workers in a rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love":
Romance & Cigarettes is not a wholly successful movie — but it almost works, thanks to a terrific performance from Gandolfini in a rare post-Sopranos lead role. (Gandolfini actually filmed Romance & Cigarettes at the height of his Sopranos fame in 2005; it was finally released in September 2007, just a few months after The Sopranos ended.) The tenderness that occasionally showed through Tony Soprano's gruff exterior throughout eight years is on full display here, and it's mesmerizing.
I had a similar reaction earlier this year when I saw Gandolfini — as himself — in the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, where he described his unlikely friendship with the 88-year-old Broadway icon of the title. Gandolfini grinned as he talked about their first meeting, when she paid him a compliment for his performance in The Sopranos; after he had thanked her and turned away, she screamed, "Don't condescend to me, you son of a bitch!" They had been close ever since.
Gandolfini spent the rest of his post-Sopranos years in supporting roles that drew far less attention, even as he displayed far more range than he ever got credit for; in between, he devoted his time and attention to projects like Alive Day: Home from Iraq, a documentary which gave injured Iraq War veterans a chance to tell their stories. Though he appeared in a number of acclaimed movies, including In the Loop, Killing Them Softly, and Zero Dark Thirty, he shied away from the attention that he'd attracted during his years on The Sopranos, which had always, clearly, made him uncomfortable.
The genius of James Gandolfini on The Sopranos — as series creator David Chase rightly called it — was his ability to play a monster and make us care about him anyway. But the bar was much lower for caring about Gandolfini himself. We've lost one of our great living actors, but there's no doubt that we'll remember him.