News Column

He Brought Out the Best in an Unlikable Guy

June 20, 2013


He was no casting director's idea of a leading man.

Husky and balding, with features that bore absolutely no resemblance to Robert Redford, he had "character actor" written all over him.

But, in 1999, Westwood-born James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday in Italy, stepped out of supporting roles and morphed, brilliantly, into the character that would make him a star.

Tony Soprano, the gruff, put-upon Garden State mobster who had an easier job managing a crime family than he did keeping his wife, kids and assorted other relatives in line, was a larger-than-life, once-in-a-lifetime part.

And it was one that Gandolfini made his own.

For six seasons, viewers of the acclaimed HBO series struggled to understand Tony, the only gangster on the block who was seeing a psychiatrist. (A psychiatrist who, apparently, didn't understand him, either, since she discussed him, endlessly, with her own psychiatrist.)

Clearly influenced by Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and an entire generation of actors who excelled at playing what were known in the 1970s as "anti-heroes," Gandolfini made us smile, wince, love him and hate him every week, in the span of just one hour.

Viewers rooted him on one minute, reviled him the next.

They continued to do so, season after season on a show that, according to many television critics, was one of the two or three best drama series of all time. And that was due, in no small part, to its stellar cast and the star who anchored it all.

Indeed, everything that made Gandolfini seem so wrong for so many other roles on TV aligned perfectly in his letter-perfect portrayal of Tony.

We believed he could strangle a man who had wronged him -- while visiting a New England college with his teenage daughter. We believed he could execute one of his closest friends, seemingly without remorse. And we believed that, no matter how many cold- blooded foes he had, from the island of Manhattan to the Jersey Shore, none were as coldblooded as his own mother Livia -- the bitter, manipulative matriarch of the Soprano crime empire.

"The Sopranos" found humor and pathos in its mostly vile cast of characters. Viewers laughed at Tony's Archie Bunker-ish malaprops. They chuckled at his sometimes painful interactions with his family members. They even cheered for him, every so often, when he faced off against an enemy who was even more awful than he was.

But, ultimately, the audience's love-hate relationship with the character soured. He, like so many others of the show's recurring characters, were people you might want to have a beer with some night, but wouldn't want in your life.

They were downright despicable.

The Emmy-winning writers, who included the show's creator David Chase, were outstanding. But Gandolfini, who had played a gangster years earlier in the film "True Romance," was the show's linchpin.

His Tony -- who, like the rest of his crew, knew "The Godfather" and other gangster movies inside out -- occasionally reminded us of Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, a poor working stiff for whom things never seemed to go quite right.

We also saw him as a cunning crime boss. A powerful leader.

Heck, Gandolfini even made Tony sexy.

Somehow, no matter how many beauties he bedded, viewers were never forced to wonder what an attractive woman would see in a paunchy, not particularly good-looking guy.

Like many of his predecessors who excelled at playing gangsters (Pacino, De Niro, et al.), Gandolfini was notoriously private when it came to discussing his most famous creation.

So famous, that Gandolfini's biggest challenge after the show ended was putting Tony Soprano behind him. He had his share of flops ("Surviving Christmas") and also did some amusing, if little-seen independent films ("Romance & Cigarettes"). But his work in "A Civil Action," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and, particularly "The Mexican" proved that, even if his fans weren't about to forget Tony Soprano, they were capable of seeing the actor take on other, dissimilar roles.

They would never bury Tony, though. Most fans assumed some reunion would bring Gandolfini and the rest of the cast back together. His former castmates said that was probably unlikely. Sadly, they were right.

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