“James Gandolfini was real. He was special. You could feel it.” The moment I saw the news this morning, I knew there was one remembrance that I’d want to read first. And we’ll return to New York television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in a moment, but we do need to gather the particulars beforehand.
“James Gandolfini, the Emmy Award-winning actor who shot to fame on the HBO drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano, a tough-talking, hard-living crime boss with a stolid exterior but a rich interior life, died on Wednesday,” reports Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times. “He was traveling in Rome, where he was on vacation and was scheduled to attend the Taormina Film Fest. The cause was not immediately announced; an HBO press representative said that Mr. Gandolfini may have had a heart attack.” He was 51.
“The actor first came to prominence playing the mob hitman Virgil in the 1993 film True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino,” writes David Batty. “But he will be best remembered as troubled gangster Soprano who struggled to juggle his family life and his career as a mafia boss over the show’s six seasons…. He also appeared in the films Zero Dark Thirty, Get Shorty, The Mexican and In the Loop. At the time of his death, Gandolfini had been working on an upcoming new HBO series titled Criminal Justice.” Also in the Guardian, Helen Razer: “In cinema and on stage, James Gandolfini was testament to the powers of the Actors Studio and of the Italian-American performance tradition…. [T]he man breathed life into unglamorous men the way only a true character actor can.”
The AP collects tributes from those who worked with him, among them Sopranos creator David Chase: “He was a genius. 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. He was my partner…. He was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”
Now, then, back to Matt Zoller Seitz. “I keep coming back to that realness, and the source of it, his goodness. I got to know him a bit as a reporter, and I can testify that what you’ve heard is true. He was a good man.” Read on. There’s the story of the interview that almost wasn’t, the one that explains “the distinctive dent in the actor’s forehead,” the one with the noogies. Read on.
Updates: “The Sopranos remains the best television series since the beginning of the medium, dramatically terrifying, comically richer than The Honeymooners, a series that began with a premise, a milieu, and a cast that, unlike Mad Men, never exhausted itself.” New Yorker editor David Remnick: “Gandolfini was not the creator of The Sopranos—David Chase was the author of this novel in every way—nor was he a solo act, like Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Chase populated his series with actors, like Edie Falco, and amateur actors, who gave the cast a Fellini-esque variety and depth. But Gandolfini was the focal point of The Sopranos, the incendiary, sybaritic neurotic who must play the Godfather at home and at the Bada Bing but knows that everything—his family, his racket, his way of life—is collapsing all around 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.”
Gandolfini “would have hated all this fuss,” suggests AP television critic Frazier Moore. “How to account for the providential choice of Gandolfini to headline a high-profile HBO drama series playing an anguished mob boss and family man? Balding and beefy, he seemed the antithesis of an actor who could sustain viewers’ interest, amusing them, horrifying them and compelling them to love him in a way they had never loved a TV hero before. Gandolfini made the character monstrous yet sympathetic, a man with a murderously chilling gaze yet a mischievous smile. Thus did Tony Soprano become part of the culture, taking Gandolfini, reluctantly, with him.”
At Open Culture, Colin Marshall introduces Gandolfini’s 2004 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio (44’56”). “Gandolfini’s conversation with host James Lipton covers his Italian family, his early work on the stage, his first turn as a mobster in True Romance (which included an appearance in what Lipton calls the most violent scene Quentin Tarantino ever wrote), which other big star’s father his own father bought tires from, the praise Roger Ebert gave him, how he sees point of view as central to the craft of acting, and how Tony Soprano first entered his life.”
Vulture‘s Zach Dionne collects some of the more memorable passages from interviews with Gandolfini.
In 2009, Armando Iannucci recalled working with Gandolfini on In the Loop: “When we wrote the part of a Pentagon general who sounds like he can talk the talk but never really manages to walk the walk, I instantly thought of him, simply because it was casting a little bit against type. I liked the idea of him being authoritative but pointless. And, it turned out in rehearsal and the shoot, James is very, very good at slapstick. He’s a natural comic performer, with a deep love of W.C. Fields.”
Variety‘s Nick Vivarelli now has more details on Gandolfini’s passing.
“He worked tirelessly for breast cancer and military veteran charities,” notes Michael Hogan in the Telegraph. “Actor Joseph R Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore in The Sopranos, told US gossip website TMZ last night: ‘James is one guy who never turned his back on me. He was the most humble, gifted people I ever worked with. He was a great man and I will forever be indebted to him.'” Indeed, “it’s not the actor we mourn today, it’s the man.”
“David Chase used his secret sharer James Gandolfini in a quietly devastating way in his feature film writing/directing debut last year, Not Fade Away,” writes Glenn Kenny. “Gandolfini plays Pat, the disapproving dad of ’60s Jersey teen and fledgling rocker Douglas (John Magaro), and in the early exchanges between the working-class father and the Beatle-boots sporting son the words and attitudes are conventionally gruff and bluff, standard get-a-haircut stuff goosed with racial and sexual epithets for extra added discomfort…. And it seems a little odd, at first; having cast Gandolfini in the first place, and knowing all of what the actor is capable of, why give him so seemingly little to do?… But Chase is an artist of expansive brilliance and exquisite sensitivity, perhaps even more sensitivity than the television critics who have built a kind of church on the rock of The Sopranos even know…. I don’t think there’s been a screen actor since Warren Oates who could do what Gandolfini did.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Steven Zeitchik notes that there are two Gandolfini performances we’ve yet to see. “In Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, shot in August and September in Los Angeles, Gandolfini plays a character we haven’t seen him play before: a gentle, lovable soul who is just looking for love.” And: “Earlier this spring Gandolfini shot a crime drama set in Brooklyn titled Animal Rescue, which like Enough Said comes from the studio division Fox Searchlight. Director Michael Roskum (Bullhead) is in postproduction on the movie, which is notable on several fronts. It’s a Euro-centric acting affair set in outerboro New York (Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace play the leads). And its story of redemption involving the rescue of a pit bull, a con, a romance and a Brooklyn bar marks the feature screenwriting debut of one Dennis Lehane, the novelist on whose work Shutter Island and Mystic River are based. But now it’s known for something else much bigger than that: the last movie Gandolfini shot.”
“The summary Rob Lowe offered after James Gandolfini was reported dead at 51 yesterday is no less accurate for being unoriginal: ‘James Gandolfini gave the greatest performance in the history of television.'” David Masciotra for the Atlantic: “Excellent character actor Terence Stamp has often spoken about how Marlon Brando was the ‘gamechanger’ for film performance. He emerged in an era of overacting and demonstrated that subtlety, introspection, and projection of a contemplative nature could possess power greater than the most flamboyant histrionics. James Gandolfini, in his signature and epoch-defining role of mafia kingpin Tony Soprano, was the Brando of television. The similarities go far beyond their Italian ancestry, imposing physicality, and brooding darkness. Gandolfini, like Brando, changed the game.”
Time television critic James Poniewozik argues that “without Tony, there would be no Walter White, no Vic Mackey, no Carrie Mathison. Through Tony, Gandolfini wrote the blueprint for the modern, complicated TV antihero; he took the wall between stand-up TV good guys and wicked bad guys and bashed it down with a baseball bat. And without The Sopranos, becoming a smash pop-culture phenom by telling an incredibly sophisticated story, it’s hard to imagine Deadwood, The Americans, or dozens of other ambitious dramas that came after; it’s hard to imagine the now widespread belief that TV could be art.”
“It’s no knock on James Gandolfini to note that this remarkable and galvanizing actor was not exactly a chameleon,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Without ever stooping to wink at the viewer, Gandolfini had a way of signaling precisely what you were in for when he turned up onscreen…. One of my favorite of his performances was in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There; he not only melded perfectly into those velvety ’50s-noir shadows but managed, in his relatively brief turn as a crude, unsympathetic department-store owner named ‘Big Dave’ Brewster, to strike notes of unrestrained pathos almost too shocking for the film to withstand. That year (2001) also saw the release of the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts vehicle The Mexican, in which Gandolfini, two years into his career-defining success with The Sopranos, handily upstaged his higher-billed co-stars in the role of a gay hitman with an obsessive-romantic streak.” And in the “underappreciated” Killing Them Softly? “Gandolfini easily walked away, or perhaps drunkenly shuffled away, with the whole movie.”
Mike Figgis directed a fifth season episode of The Sopranos and recalls being “royally wound up by the big Gand’.”
Gandolfini “leaves a legacy bigger than Tony Soprano,” writes Emily Nussbaum for the New Yorker. “It’s rare for one performance to change the world, but once Gandolfini cleared the way, nobody could be under any illusion about what a television actor was capable of.”
“I never loved Tony Soprano and I honestly still don’t quite understand how other people could,” writes Margaret Lyons at Vulture. “Entertained by Tony Soprano? That I can see. Invested in Tony Soprano? Sure—Gandolfini and Sopranos creator David Chase made it disturbingly easy to see the world through Tony’s eyes. For me, though, the draw of Gandolfini’s performance wasn’t that he made me love Tony. It’s that he made me feel sorry for him, for this rich, powerful, selfish asshole who killed people with impunity. Gandolfini’s feat in reinventing the tough guy was that he added a perpetual misery to the swagger of a gangster and the ordinariness of a suburban dad.”
Erik Davis sees Tony a bit differently: “Here was a show where everyone’s thick New York/New Jersey accent—a trait that had plagued me my entire life—was actually being celebrated. It was cool. These characters were cool…. Tony Soprano didn’t teach me how to fight—he taught me how to be tougher. How to outsmart your enemies by making it seem like you have all the answers and they don’t. In so many of his roles, James Gandolfini taught me how to have confidence.”
Also at Movies.com, Jake Cole: “Of all Gandolfini’s memorable, show-stealing performances, my own favorite is one in which that iconic, imposing but charismatic image of his does not even make an appearance. I am talking of his voice role in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I haven’t seen the film since shortly after its home video release, but Gandolfini’s Carol has never left me since 2009.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw agrees: “Gandolfini created something like the evil twin of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, and yet also showed that underneath a scary, brutal exterior there could be a thoughtful soul.”
In the LAT, Nicole Sperling recalls meeting Gandolfini in November: “His truth-meter always seemed to be on high alert, which probably accounted for why he was always good in every role he played—and how utterly exhausted he found so many aspects of his profession.”
At Criticwire, Matt Singer looks back on Gandolfini’s performances in Killing Them Softly, Violet & Daisy, and Not Fade Away: “I don’t know what Gandolfini’s health or mental state was like in the last few years. But he did some of his finest and most haunting film work in these final roles, playing men who felt, deep in their bones, that they were coming to the end.”
“How many performers of Gandolfini’s vintage can now hope to nab a role as enduring, or as engulfing, as that of Tony in a major film?” asks Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “To put the matter at its starkest: intelligent grownups, herded like zebras around the water-cooler, have no cause to muse upon the subtleties of Man of Steel, which has none, when they can bicker and bray for hours about Carrie’s latest mental melt, in Homeland, or about the Bryan Cranston character in Breaking Bad, and to what extent he, or at least his mustache, is based upon Ned Flanders, in The Simpsons. Those types of conversation owe so much to Gandolfini; when he sat down, in the first episode, in front of Lorraine Bracco, and tried to tell her how it was—how everything felt—he wasn’t just talking to her. He was talking to us. That sound will not fade away, not for a long while, and, as we mourn his passing, we should ask, with a different sadness: the movies drummed up these days, and released with much fanfare by the studios, may be as noisy as hell, but do we listen to them, in dread and affection, as we did to Tony Soprano? Do they still talk the talk?”
Vanity Fair reminds us of Sam Kashner‘s oral history of The Sopranos that ran in April 2012 with photographs by Annie Leibovitz. And in GQ: “Brett Martin tells the story of the creatively brilliant and infuriatingly complicated men who struggled to create a whole new TV genre—and the night that almost brought The Sopranos down.”
“Gandolfini,” writes Ronald Bergan for the Guardian, “who had studied the Sanford Meisner method of acting for two years, lived up to Meisner’s exhortation to ‘find in yourself those human things which are universal.’ Gandolfini always claimed to be nothing like Tony Soprano: ‘I’m really basically just like a 260-pound Woody Allen.'”
Updates, 6/21: “Mr. Gandolfini kept trying to kill off Tony Soprano and move on, and he will be best remembered for making that mob boss immortal,” writes the NYT‘s Alessandra Stanley. Focusing on the film roles, Manohla Dargis joins those singling out Where the Wild Things Are: “Muting and blowing his signature nasal voice, Mr. Gandolfini magically transforms Carol—who onscreen is a lumbering beast with horns, a tail and a melancholic smile—into an achingly soulful being who’s by turns child and parent, the wild thing who makes you laugh, the one who makes you cry, the one who will hold you tight in his arms and who, as you sail away, will howl his love from the shore.”
“James Gandolfini acted in and considered many roles in his distinguished career, but there was one man who fascinated him, whom he never got to play: New York’s powerful master builder, Robert Moses.” Anthony Flint, author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, in the New Republic: “A powerful man at the throne of an empire, challenged by an audacious woman: Gandolfini, scouting for post-Sopranos projects, wanted to star, produce and direct.”
“Some of his most inspired cinematic work resides in obscure, overlooked, or damn near unknown movies,” writes Nathan Rabin. “Gandolfini’s performance in the hallucinatory 1997 Barry Gifford adaptation Perdita Durango falls into this third category…. Gandolfini’s unabashedly goofy performance helps make the film a campy delight.” Also at Dissolve‘s tumblr, Keith Phipps on the Sopranos movie that never was: “Imagine the possibilities of an elderly Tony Soprano, years from now, as a lion in winter, padding around that tacky McMansion that was always filled yet always seemed so empty.” Plus, Scott Tobias on three scenes from The Man Who Wasn’t There, Matt Singer on Violet and Daisy, Noel Murray on Not Fade Away and Where the Wild Things Are, and Tasha Robinson: “John Turturro’s thoroughly bizarre musical 2005 musical Romance & Cigarettes is an undisciplined mess of a movie, but it looks like it was immense fun for the cast—particularly James Gandolfini in the starring role as a man trying to choose between his wife (Susan Sarandon) and his mistress (Kate Winslet) while coping with terminal cancer.”
“Like many, I first noticed Gandolfini as Virgil the hitman in 1993’s True Romance, a performance he said was based in part on a real-life mob enforcer with whom he’d been friends,” writes Christopher Orr for the Atlantic. “Gandolfini has a few good scenes in the movie, but his brutal, extended confrontation with Patricia Arquette is a small masterpiece. It was all there, even then: the volcanic intensity and physical carnality, the unexpected sensitivity and hint of playfulness, the knack for introspection, the longing for something he can’t quite name. For those who haven’t seen the scene—and perhaps still more for those who have—it’s every bit as riveting as it was 20 years ago.”
Updates, 6/29: “Funerals are for the living. James Gandolfini’s was beautiful and wrenching and right. Given what an earthy guy he was, it seems appropriate that it was open to the public and that people started crowding the streets outside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Harlem early in the morning to claim a seat and pay their respects.” Matt Zoller Seitz was there.
HitFix‘s Alan Sepinwall has transcribed David Chase’s eulogy. Before the funeral, Nosheen Iqbal spoke with Chase for the Guardian: “There is something immensely lovable about him and something immensely interesting. I don’t know which came first. There was a quality, I think—maybe it’s my taste showing—but there was a quality of sadness he had. I’ve been thinking about it recently, and my feeling is that you saw in him a little boy. The lost, hurt, little boy. He stood for all lost little boys.”
At Hyperallergic, Steve Ramos looks back on an almost surreal interview he conducted with Gandolfini in 2009.