News Column

Gandolfini Was More Than Tony Soprano

June 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Anyone who thinks of the late James Gandolfini as a one-note impersonator of mobsters has no idea of his rangy career.

Even putting aside the fact that crime boss Tony Soprano on HBO's "The Sopranos," his most famous role, was anything but one-note, Gandolfini was capable of playing anything from the mayor of New York ("The Taking of Pelham 123") to CIA director Leon Panetta ("Zero Dark Thirty"), to a sexy gay hit man ("The Mexican"), to a lovable, shaggy monster named Carol ("Where the Wild Things Are"). There were really only two things he couldn't play: small, and weak.

The North Jersey actor, who died Wednesday in Rome of a heart attack at the age of 51, could play a guy with weaknesses, of course. It was almost his specialty: from the neurotic, guilt- ridden Tony Soprano to Bailey, the middle-aged Keansburg guy with a dark secret in his past, in one of his last released movies, "Down the Shore" (filmed in 2011 but in theaters this past April). But Gandolfini was a bear of a man. Like certain other actors -- John Goodman, Gerard Depardieu, Anthony Quinn -- he filled up a screen. What Gandolfini couldn't do was not be charismatic, not be forceful, not be the guy in the center of the room.

A lot of his movie roles are hard cases, criminals and law enforcement types in particular. But he also played ordinary suburban dads, boyfriends, businessmen and military guys in some 45 movies starting in 1987, and he had a robust career on Broadway and as a TV producer.

Here are some of the high notes.

Film

* "True Romance" (1993) Not Gandolfini's first film, but it was the one in which he made a splash and established his tough-guy bona fides. He's a woman-beating Sicilian mob enforcer hired by Christopher Walken.

* "Angie" (1994) In an off-type role, he plays Geena Davis' sensitive, cast-aside boyfriend.

* "Terminal Velocity" (1994) Gandolfini's Ben Pinkwater is the one interesting twist in this ridiculous skydiving thriller: a milquetoast insurance salesman who is actually a vicious Russian mobster.

* "Crimson Tide" (1995) He's a military man in this one.

* "Night Falls on Manhattan" (1997) He's a detective helping to uncover the top-down corruption of New York in Sidney Lumet's film.

* "Get Shorty" (1995) He's an ex-stunt man turned mob guy -- yes, again -- in this uber-hip Elmore Leonard thriller starring John Travolta.

* "The Mexican" (2001) In one of his most offbeat, celebrated roles, Gandolfini is an utterly charming gay hit man who walks away with the movie.

* "Surviving Christmas" (2004) He's the suburban homeowner who clonks Ben Affleck -- as the moony overgrown boy who is sniffing around his childhood home -- with a shovel.

* "All the King's Men" (2006) A generally dismal remake of the Robert Penn Warren book about Louisiana demagogue "Willie Stark," aka Huey Long (Sean Penn), but Gandolfini is memorable as Tiny Duffy, one of the boss's henchmen.

* "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009) In this second version of the subway heist thriller, Gandolfini is the mayor of New York.

* "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009) In his -- well, anybody's -- least typical role, Gandolfini is at his most lovable as Carol, the big, cuddly monster who befriends Max (Max Records) in Maurice Sendak's children's classic.

* "Down the Shore" (2011) In this bleak independent film, Gandolfini is a depressed, middle-aged Jersey Shore guy who is custodian of a dark secret involving a childhood pal (Joe Pope). Released in 2013.

* "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) In this thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Gandolfini plays the small but pivotal role of CIA director Leon Panetta (not identified by name).

* "Not Fade Away" (2012) Gandolfini is the 1960s suburban Jersey dad whose son John Magaro wants to be a rock star, in "Sopranos" creator David Chase's bid to become a film director.

* "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" (2013) Gandolfini is a billionaire casino owner in this comedy about rival magicians (Steve Carell, Jim Carrey).

Theater

* "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1992) Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange were Stanley and Blanche; Gandolfini was their poker-playing pal Steve Hubbell, from whose upstairs flat Stanley summons his wife with the famous "Heyyyyyy, Stella!"

* "On the Waterfront" (1995) Ron Eldard had the Marlon Brando role; Gandolfini was his brother Charley. As in, "It was you, Charley. You was my brother. You should've looked out for me."

* "God of Carnage" (2009) In Yasmina Reza's play, translated from the French, Gandolfini was the dad whose parental summit about a children's bullying incident soon devolves into violence.

Non-'Sopranos' TV

* "Alive Day: Home from Iraq" (2007) As producer. Emmy-nominated HBO documentary about wounded war veterans.

* "Wartorn: 1861-2010" (2010) As producer. A documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder.

* "Hemingway & Gellhorn" (2012) As producer. Docudrama about the writer's (Clive Owen) rocky romance with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman).

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