James Gandolfini started showing up in movies in the early ’90s. Many people (apparently) remember him from True Romance and Angie (I have never seen either). I only remember him at all from one thing before The Sopranos, and that was Get Shorty1. He has since showed up in The Taking of Pelham 123, Cinema Verite and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which he was incredible in. Nothing will ever top his run as Tony Soprano though.
The Sopranos has gone down as possibly the greatest TV show ever. Some people prefer The Wire, but as I pointed out in my recent recaps of The Wire, The Sopranos should get some credit for riding on the backs of just two actors, Gandolfini and Edie Falco for so long. Gandolfini was magnificent. This show is so rewatchable because he is so good playing this role. There is no doubt that his skill is what allowed an entire set of shows to follow where the main character is a bad person, who fans root for anywhere. Both Bryan Cranston and Michael Chiklis acknowledged Gandolfini on Thursday, citing the fact that neither of their shows (Breaking Bad and The Shield repectively) would have been possible without Ganfolfini serving as the trailblazer.
If you are looking for a sports analogy, it might be Bill Walsh. Like Walsh, Gandolfini wasn’t doing something that no one had tried before, he just did it to perfection. And then all of these people followed in his footsteps. He will forever be remembered as an icon of the medium, with people like Jackie Gleason, and Carroll O"Connor and Jerry Seinfeld (I am totally blanking on some good drama comparisons).
From a professional standpoint, this is such a blow for TV (and movies). Gandolfini was only 51, and although was trying to break out of The Sopranos mold, had done good work so far, and it was only a matter of time before he either started churning out great leading movie roles, or got another TV deal. From some of the articles I have read in the last few days, he was a humble and smart man, and that makes sense because he surely could have had a TV-show greenlit at any time and obviously chose to wait for something good. It seems inevitable that the worst case scenario for him was a run as a supporting character on 2020’s version of Mad Men, Breaking Bad or something along those lines.
Instead a wife and family are without their husband and father, everyone else is left with 86 episodes of greatness that won’t be topped anytime soon.
- I later recognized him in "A Civil Action* but that was after I had see The Sopranos [↩]