News Column

Gandolfini Shone as Iconic Anti-hero

June 21, 2013

David Hiltbrand

James Gandolfini, who died suddenly on Wednesday night in Rome, changed television. And television changed him.

The actor gave one of the most incandescent performances in the history of the medium as the violent, crass and strangely conflicted boss of a New Jersey crime family in HBO's The Sopranos. Gandolfini's ferocious and fearless work inspired a flood of supernal acting on cable, with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and others excelling as deeply, almost antagonistically flawed protagonists.

Gandolfini's compelling portrayal of Tony Soprano, the basso profundo character with the falsetto name, was arguably the most impactful and indelible dramatic turn since Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski more than half a century ago in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. (Gandolfini's Broadway debut, coincidentally, was in a well-received 1992 revival of that play which starred Alec Baldwin as Kowlaski.)

The role, which earned Gandofini three Emmys, also altered him. A soft-spoken and humble character actor, he found the sudden glare of stardom to be almost agonizing. The more time he spent getting himself into Tony's skin, the harder it seemed to extricate himself.

Over six seasons as the volcanic mob boss, Gandolfini's manner became more gruff and insular. The cast and crew learned to give him a wide berth as he went through his pre-performance process: pacing the set while barking out loud, animal-like sounds.

However exacting the toll of inhabiting a carnal, criminal, kill-or-be-killed savage, it was a role that Gandolfini in some ways seemed destined to play. Try for a moment to imagine the series without his primal presence. It just doesn't work.

Gandolfini was born in Westwood, N.J. (Exit 168 off the Garden State Parkway) and raised in Park Ridge in Bergen County by a custodian at a parochial school in Paramus and a high school cafeteria worker, both of whom spoke Italian at home.

After graduating from Rutgers University, he banged around New York City as a bouncer and bartender before drifting into acting in his mid-20s. He quickly became a dependable stage and screen staple, usually in supporting roles.

He began attracting attention, first as Charley, the corrupt brother of the hero in a 1992 Broadway revival of On The Waterfront, then as Virgil, the simmering hit man in the 1993 film True Romance. The movie's director, the late Tony Scott, praised Gandolfini as "a unique combination of charming and dangerous".

That singular combination was never wielded as outstandingly as in his defining role as a man of voracious appetites and unbridled rage. The cigar-chomping, fowl-feeding Tony Soprano was an old school gangster in a cell phone world. He took time out from touring colleges in Maine with his daughter Meadow, to garrote a former associate now in witness protection. And given the bitter relationship he had with his mother, Livia (Tony heard her on an FBI surveillance tape lobbying to have him whacked), it's no wonder he was in therapy.

Lorraine Bracco, who played Tony's analyst, Dr, Melfi, said after Gandolfini's death, "I had the greatest sparring partner in the world; I had Muhammad Ali."

Brad Pitt, who did two films with Gandolfini said, "I admire Jimmy as a ferocious actor, a gentle soul and a genuinely funny man. I am fortunate to have sat across the table from him and am gutted by this loss."

Fellow Jersey Boy David Chase created the series that made Gandolfini an unlikely icon. Chase was fiercely appreciative of his star's talents, saying in a statement, "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. I remember telling him many times,'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone."

After The Sopranos completed its run in 2007, Gandolfini modestly returned to his former status as a proficient and prolific working actor, adept at comedy and drama. In 2012, he was featured in three films, as a rapidly unraveling hit man in Killing Them Softly, as a disapproving rock musician's dad in Chase's Not Fade Away and as the embattled CIA director in Zero Dark Thirty.

But he never escaped the hulking shadow of Tony Soprano, the role for which he will always be celebrated. Even their endings were similarly abrupt and unexpected: Gandolfini of what has been widely reported as a heart attack at 51 while visiting Rome, and Soprano sitting in a booth in Holsten's ice cream parlor in Bloomfield, N.J., fewer than 10 miles from where Gandolfini was born.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

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