Charisma is measured in contradictions, and Tony Soprano possessed two sides of all of his qualities. He was terrifying and vulnerable, relatable and unfathomable, cuddly and cold. He was a sociopath and a sympathetic victim of his environment. He was a bullying mob patriarch whose mama was the monster in all of his nightmares. He was a master strategist in a fuzzy bathrobe yelling at his lazy kids. He killed men with his bare hands and ate his feelings straight out of the fridge. He was, like many a parent or sibling or old friend, someone we kept hoping might change and kept never changing, someone we loved against our better judgment.
Or maybe we simply loved James Gandolfini, the actor who embodied the greatest television character of all time, who died at age 51 of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday while vacationing with his family in Italy. It is a cliché to say that we “love” our pop-cultural icons, and it seems like a bad joke to compare the death of a man who played a Family member to losing an actual family member. But a television protagonist can leave traces of himself around the house; he’s in front of you so long that you might start sensing him behind you. Gandolfini spent some 172 hours in my living room: two full cycles of The Sopranos, which ran for 86 episodes on HBO from 1999–2007. Most of us have fallen in love on far less.
To get a picture of Gandolfini’s genius, you could choose virtually any Sopranos episode. I would go to “Whitecaps,” in which Tony faces off against his most formidable foe, his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco, Gandolfini’s most formidable acting partner). Carmela has finally reached her breaking point on Tony’s lies and infidelities, and in an operatic two-part fight, he hauls out his entire repertoire of negotiation tactics. He uses that slushy voice to purr entreaties and scream obscenities. He offers her puppy-eyed contrition and narrow-eyed wrath. He gives her space and crowds her with his bulk. He deploys both passive aggression (rearranging her furniture; lolling provocatively in the pool) and plain old aggression. There are comic moments (Tony squaring up to a slammed door like it’s an officious rent-a-cop) and terrifying moments (Tony shoving Carmela against a wall). It’s a primal scene among Sopranos devotees, and what’s most indelible and disturbing about it, thanks to these two magnificent actors, is a frisson of faintly giddy excitement—a kind of ecstasy in destruction, a recognition that the big earthquakes of our lives can be excruciatingly but inarguably thrilling. Gandolfini showed us this, too: how violence and corruption, in their sheer novelty, could become alluring and addictive, how a man doing ugly things for a living in pursuit of a twisted American dream might strike us as beautiful.
The Sopranos told one American-dream story; Gandolfini’s biography told another. Born and raised in New Jersey to Italian-born, Italian-speaking parents—a custodian and a cafeteria worker—Gandolfini jobbed for years as a bartender and construction worker before he got his big break on David Chase’s paradigm-busting show midway through his 30s. By all accounts, portraying a tormented mobster sometimes shredded Gandolfini’s nerves. (Brett Martin’s forthcoming book Difficult Men, about the revolution in cable-television drama heralded by The Sopranos, opens with Gandolfini simply disappearing from the set for four days, throwing production into chaos.) But the on-screen work never faltered, his colleagues adored him, and his feats of generosity are legend—for example, how he marked the resolution of a pay dispute with HBO by handing out five-figure checks to fellow cast members. (The ex-bartender also turned into a famously fantastic restaurant tipper.) He used his post-Sopranos clout for good, working with HBO on the powerful documentaries Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, in which he interviewed veterans on their experiences during and after war, and the PTSD history Wartorn: 1861-2010. He also turned in uniformly fine, mostly supporting performances in movies, such as the melancholy creature Carol in Where the Wild Things Are and the embittered patriarch in Chase’s underappreciated feature debut Not Fade Away.
It is one thing for an actor to be typecast; it is another for an actor to become synonymous with a character who transforms an entire medium, upending its fealty to tidy character arcs, moral score-setting, and conventional aesthetics. Even years after The Sopranos had ended, Gandolfini’s presence in a movie could feel like stunt casting, but it worked: Only a man with the physical and psychological heft of Tony Soprano could take on the Machiavellian spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the acrid political satire In the Loop, and when Gandolfini strides into a conference room in Zero Dark Thirty as Leon Panetta, he radiates exactly the oh-look-it’s-really-him star power that the film’s central CIA operative would have felt with her boss’ boss. Gandolfini had a good gig, and I’d like to think it would have expanded as more and more years put themselves between him and The Sopranos. That’s just one reason why his loss is incalculable. He was a great actor who had found one great, epic role. He might have found another.
The last perfect episode of The Sopranos is Season 6’s “Mayham,” which, like many perfect Sopranos episodes, plunges into Tony’s dreams. In waking life, Tony is in a coma and barely hanging on; in the dream, he’s arrived at another man’s family reunion, holding this other man’s briefcase, as his murdered cousin (Steve Buscemi) gently—or ominously—tries to coax him inside a house where a ghostly apparition stands in the doorway. Tony clutches the case and wavers; he hears a child’s voice—his daughter’s—in the trees. The scene as written is heavy with symbolism, it’s a bit on-the-nose, and it concerns the fate of a brutal criminal who, in terms of the greater good of society, would almost certainly be better off dead. It’s also one of the most stunning moments in television, and much of that is down to Gandolfini’s astonishingly subtle performance: a carefully assembled mosaic of gestures, blinks, glances, and starts. The stricken, wordless clarity on Tony’s face as he hesitates in front of his afterlife is exactly what dream logic feels like.
At the end of the scene, Tony wakes up. His daughter says, “Dad, you’re here now.” I think it would be unbearable to watch it now.
See videos of Gandolfini's best non-Tony Soprano roles.