In Memoriam: James Gandolfini
Like many of you, I was devastated yesterday afternoon when I heard news of James Gandolfini’s death. It couldn’t possibly be true, yet shortly after the news broke, confirmations began pouring in, and the reality set in that he was gone. Let’s take a look back at some of his best roles, and remember just how great of an actor he truly was…
I like to fancy myself a writer, but my heart will always belong in the world of theatre, and I’ve spent many years of my life working both onstage and off, and whenever a truly great character actor comes along that gets a huge break like the one Mr. Gandolfini got back in 1999, it makes me smile. But even before his role on The Sopranos, he was a recognizable character actor making appearances, usually as the heavy in films like True Romance & Crimson Tide. His most memorable role from this time period was in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 comedy Get Shorty, where he played movie stuntman & champion weightlifter Bear, whom Chilli Palmer (John Travolta) throws down a flight of stairs upon meeting him to see if he’s any good as a stuntman.
It was in 1999, however, that Gandolfini got the break of a lifetime when David Chase cast him as the lead in his new HBO series The Sopranos, centered around a mafia family in Northern New Jersey. Having grown up in and around most of the places where the show was shot, I took an immediate shine to it (Growing up with a father obsessed with the mafia and The Godfather movies certainly didn’t hurt my love for it either). Week in and week out over the course of six and a half seasons, The Sopranos was must-see television, thanks in no small part to Gandolfini’s performance as Tony.
Gandolfini was awarded three Emmys, a Golden Globe & five Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance (two of those shared with the ensemble). He brought a humanity to this monster of a man that could have been easily lost with a lesser actor in the role. No matter how far Tony strayed from his wife or those around him, the sense that you got that there was a real person behind those almost dead eyes kept you coming back again and again.
During the run of The Sopranos from 1999-2006, Gandolfini did a handful of films like the utterly forgettable The Last Castle with Robert Redford or Surviving Christmas with Ben Affleck. However, his work in two films from 2001 showed that he had range that extended far beyond playing a mafioso. His businessman turned extortionist, Big Dave, in The Coen Brothers sadly overlooked The Man Who Wasn’t There was an excellent piece of period acting, but his role as Leroy, the gay hitman assigned to accompany and potentially kill Julia Roberts in The Mexican, made a lot of people take notice of his range.
While many people feel that The Sopranos declined in quality after its dynamite third season, in retrospect, the show is just as strong in its final three seasons as it was in its first. There has been a ton written about the final moments of the series, and while I won’t be dissecting it here, suffice it to say that I actually genuinely enjoy the way the series ended, and about ninety percent of that had to do with Gandolfini selling the conclusion to his character so well.
After the series ended, Gandolfini dropped out of sight for a while, but came back with a bang in 2009 with the political comedy In The Loop from Veep creator Armando Iannucci and the boneheaded remake of The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 with Denzel Washington & John Travolta. Years of playing the lead heavy seemed to be driving Gandolfini back to his comfort zone as a character actor, but his third film from 2009 was far from a comfortable choice.
Spike Jonze’s film of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is as unconventional a children’s movie as has ever been made, and Gandolfini’s work as the leader of the Wild Things, Carol, is sublime. He represents anger & fear within the group and his voice lends itself better to these two emotions than I ever thought it could. He also spent some time on Broadway in 2009, originating the role of Michael in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (this role would go on to be played by John C. Reilly in Roman Polanski’s 2011 film version of the show).
Up until yesterday, the future looked bright for James Gandolfini. He was coming off a stellar 2012 with roles in Zero Dark Thirty, in which he played CIA Director Leon Panetta, Killing Them Softly & David Chase’s feature film debut Not Fade Away. He even flexed his comedy chops earlier this year with a small role in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. His personal life seemed to be doing just great as well, having just had a baby girl with his wife Deborah last October, and he also had a 13-year-old son from his first marriage.
We sometimes forget, particularly when an actor makes a career out of playing not-so-nice guys, that there’s a real human being behind all these characters. James Gandolfini, by all accounts, was a genuinely nice guy and, undeniably, one of the great character actors of this generation. My condolences to his family and to anyone who knew and loved him, his loss will be felt for years to come.