James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at 51 in Italy after apparently suffering a massive heart attack, was an extraordinarily accomplished stage, film and television actor. But no matter what else he did before 1999 and what he did after 2007, he will be forever remembered as Tony Soprano- and justly so.
It is no exaggeration to say that no other actor could have played Tony Soprano, the ruthless, troubled mob boss who was also at times paradoxically capable of surprising sensitivity, at the center of the brilliant HBO series "The Sopranos."
Created by David Chase, the series got America to sit up and pay attention from the start. This wasn't just another series about mobsters whacking each other, and Tony wasn't just another thug. Rather, he was a deeply complex guy struggling with changes taking place both in his home and professional lives. Times were changing. And the crime business was changing as well. Things were simpler in the old days, but no longer, and Tony wasn't always sure how to adjust to change.
That description could apply to any human being who reaches a certain age. Even if your job is as safe as selling shoes, you almost certainly have found yourself feeling that the world is changing around you. If you're middle-aged, you wonder if it's too late to rekindle the dreams and hopes of your youth. You also find yourself wary of change. Your kids are growing up, developing identities separate from your own. Mortality's clock is ticking.
Those were the elements of Tony Soprano's character as written in the "Sopranos" scripts, but what Gandolfini did to bring them to indelibly convincing life was monumental. To portray that level of complexity, you needed an actor with singular range and reach, and that's what Chase and HBO got with Gandolfini.
This bear of a man, shuffling to the bottom of his drive way each morning, his bathrobe flapping open over his boxers and bulging gut, who could kill a rival without blinking, and then share credible recitations of self-doubt with his therapist, was our Everyman. A man seeming to have a decisive and immediate answer for every situation, was, inside, a man plagued by questions.
Regardless of what Tony Soprano did for a living, he was feeling all of these things, and that made the show's appeal universal.
It's important to remember that as great a star as he became with "The Sopranos," Gandolfini was at first and always a great character actor, the kind of professional who disappears into a role. The fact that a figure of his physically imposing size could convincingly play light, play comedy, play great tragedy -- play seemingly anything, really-was evidence of his talent, broad experience and superior training.
His professional life seemed to hit a few bumps after the entire world knew him primarily as Tony Soprano. That level of role identification can be tough for a character actor to work with. Gandolfini made a couple of not very good films, like "The Mexican" in 2001 with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, but perhaps we we're more aware of them simply because the world was paying a lot more attention to what Tony Soprano was up to when he wasn't running the mob territory in New Jersey.
The character actor in him was too powerful to be thwarted by a few bad film choices. A couple of years ago, he was back at HBO to play Craig Gilbert in "Cinema Verite," a great and somewhat overlooked film about the making of what is considered the first reality TV show, "An American Family" on PBS. Gandolfini plays the filmmaker who deviously adjusts the "reality" of the Loud family to make a better story. He was brilliant.
At the time of his death. Gandolfini was working on a new series for HBO called "Criminal Justice," written by Richard Price.
Gandolfini had lived long enough to achieve something rare in the acting world: While he will be forever identified as Tony Soprano, enough time had passed since the show ended for Gandolfini to remind us all of the profound depth of his talent and versatility with many of film, TV and stage roles.
But of course, 51 isn't long enough -- not for a man, not for an actor. We think of all the great roles he could have inhabited, in life and in his career, with more time. He would have played them all as magnificently as he played Tony Soprano.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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