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James Gandolfini: 1961-2013
June 19, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 6 comments

Editor's Note: David Bianculli discusses James Gandolfini's works and legacy with Terry Gross on the Thursday, June 20 edition of NPR's Fresh Air. See the Fresh Air website for additional information and audio (available at approximately 5 p.m. ET).

The sudden death of James Gandolfini, of a reported heart attack at age 51 in Italy, is as shocking a piece of news as the sudden cut-to-black that ended his superb HBO series, The Sopranos…

It’s shocking, in part, because Gandolfini was so young — the youngest TV celebrity, by far, for whom TV Worth Watching has written an instant obituary salute.

It’s just as shocking, though, because of the impact he had on television as a whole. His role of Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos, from 1999-2007, not only redefined the mob drama genre — it blazed a path that all quality TV dramas, on cable and broadcast television, would strive to follow in the current century.

The Sopranos was such an influential and quality piece of television that the Writers Guild of America, in a recently released list of the best-written shows in TV history, listed The Sopranos at the very top spot. That was for writing, not for acting — but without Gandolfini bringing the words of David Chase and his staff to life so brilliantly, and so poignantly and grippingly, HBO’s drama would have had far less impact.

Not that Gandolfini’s contributions went unnoticed. As noted in this episode of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, he won three Emmy Awards as Best Actor in a Drama Series for his role of the conflicted New Jersey family man (“family” in two senses of the word). He won the same amount of Individual Achievement in Drama awards from the Television Critics Association, who generally praised the show, and its star, with the highest accolades imaginable.

Gandolfini reteamed with David Chase in Not Fade Away, a feature film Chase wrote and directed, and recently was seen in small supporting roles in the movies Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. He appeared on Broadway in 2009 in the Tony-winning comedy God of Carnage, and basically spent his post-Sopranos years doing what he wanted, when he wanted, and no more than that.

With the press, he was polite but reserved, and intentionally distant whenever possible. The most effusive and outgoing I ever saw him was during a group interview for Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, the 2007 HBO documentary for which he served as an executive producer and host. He insisted the spotlight be on the veterans to whom he was speaking in the film — and as long as reporters respected that, Gandolfini was talkative, candid, and charmingly humble, as seen in this NBC News clip:

To appreciate Gandolfini and honor his legacy, The Sopranos is the obvious, and most appropriate, place to start. But there are other film and TV roles, showing other glimpses of the actor, and his range and inventiveness, that should be sought out just as respectfully, and almost as eagerly.

Alive Day Memories shows Gandolfini without a script, engaging with traumatized and wounded war veterans and using his celebrity to get them to open up — and making the conversation all about them. In so doing, he also reveals more of himself than in probably any other role or interview captured on film.

For performances, go to the expected highlights: 1993’s True Romance, 1995’s Get Shorty, and the films already mentioned.

Also, though, go for the smaller but just as impressive projects:  His role as one of the jurors in TV’s 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men. His supporting role as Big Dave in 2001’s Coen Brothers film, The Man Who Wasn’t There. And, the same year, his central role in The Mexican, opposite Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. And certainly, check out his starring role in 2011's Cinema Verite (left), the HBO docudrama about the making of one of TV's first reality shows, PBS's An American Family.

Regardless, James Gandolfini is, and always will be, best known for Tony Soprano, as iconic, influential and perfect a performance, in its day, as All in the Family star Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie Bunker was in a previous era.

Because Gandolfini died so suddenly, and so young, we all have been robbed of decades worth of additional film and TV work from a superb actor.

But we’ll always have The Sopranos. And when the WGA identifies it as the best TV series of all time, who among us, as fans of quality television, could ask for more — except for one last, light-hearted moment with one of television's most memorable stars:

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Thanks for very timely, thoughtful tribute to a brilliant actor. For those who have never seen it, 1994's "Angie" with co-star Geena Davis is a sweet, charming little gem. He will be greatly missed on the big & small screens.
Jun 20, 2013   |  Reply
What a lovely tribute, and the clips were perfect for showing various facets of Gandolfini. Thanks for including them. (And now I've spent a good portion of the morning watching every single one of them.) I remember him especially--in addition to "The Sopranos" (for which I first subscribed to HBO)--for his performance in "The Man Who Wasn't There." Now I think I'll have to seek out some of the others like "The Mexican" or "True Romance." Hard to believe he's gone. Thanks again for the tribute.
Jun 20, 2013   |  Reply
A lovely tribute. I'm glad you mentioned The Mexican, an underrated film with a dynamite and show-stealing Gandolfini performance (no mean feat alongside Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts).

The film you missed though, in my mind, is In the Loop. Still fresh off of the end of The Sopranos, Gandolfini plays a war-weary American General, and does so as he perfectly inhabits Armando Iannuchi's satirical world better than any American, including the brilliant cast of Veep, ever has. Brilliant work, and so unlike the roles he's most known for.

He is sorely missed. Taken way too soon.
Jun 19, 2013   |  Reply
Phillip R. Crabb
For those of us who live here, as well as he portrayed a mob boss, nobody ever portrayed "Jersey" as naturally and accurately as he.
Jun 19, 2013   |  Reply
Wow....I want to watch "Alive Day Memories" and so many other roles he played now besides Tony Soprano. Especially the one with Gene Hackman. RIP
Jun 19, 2013   |  Reply
Thanks David, That was beautiful
Jun 19, 2013   |  Reply
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