With his intensely forceful and emotional performance as Tony Soprano, the actor changed TV forever — and for the better

By Melissa Maerz
Updated June 28, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

A Tribute to the Man Behind the Mobster

James Gandolfini could make you feel like the all-time worst human being for loving him. Or rather, he could make you feel that way for loving the savage Jersey mobster he played on The Sopranos — and the fact that so many people still have trouble telling the difference between the actor and the character proves what an immense talent he was. After the 51-year-old passed away suddenly from a heart attack while vacationing in Rome on June 19, the New York Post headline read: ”Tony Soprano Dead.” Which made sense: Gandolfini didn’t just make Tony Soprano seem more alive than any other TV character before him; he made this throat-slashing, goomah-snogging, vafangool-raging monster seem like one of us.

Everything about Gandolfini was relatable. He was born in Westwood, N.J., grew up in Park Ridge, and always kept that Garden State accent. His father was a bricklayer and high school janitor. His mother served lunch to kids at a school cafeteria. He worked as a bartender and a nightclub manager before he got his big break at age 35 with The Sopranos. By that time, he was balding and a few pounds past his target BMI. He looked like he could’ve been your butcher or your uncle.

And Tony Soprano — despite being a ruthless criminal — struggled with ordinary problems. His kids didn’t respect him. His marriage was falling apart. He worried that this whole ”keep your work at work” thing simply wasn’t working out. He was a regular guy, and that wasn’t just a credit to creator David Chase’s writing. Padding around like a sedated bear in his fuzzy bathrobe and slippers, with his sad-eyed smirks, Gandolfini’s Tony looked heavy — not only from eating last night’s chicken parm leftovers, but from the unbearable weight of family and responsibility, just like everybody else. That’s why it was so shocking when, only five episodes into the first season, he strangles a Witness Protection rat while taking his daughter, Meadow, on a college tour. If this great dad was capable of such barbarism, who’s to say the rest of us weren’t?

That episode, ”College,” almost didn’t make it to broadcast. In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin reports that Chris Albrecht, the president of HBO original programming at the time, warned Chase that he’d lose his audience if he turned such a compelling character into a monster so quickly. He thought viewers wouldn’t watch a series where a sociopath was the hero, not the villain. And he may have been right — but Gandolfini changed everyone’s mind. By making Tony sympathetic, he made way for a whole new type of antihero: Vic Mackey on The Shield, Walter White on Breaking Bad, Don Draper on Mad Men, every other character on The Wire. And once you started rooting for him, it was hard to know when to stop. In one episode, Tony’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, gets raped in a parking garage, and later fantasizes about having her Mob-boss patient squash the rapist ”like a bug.” But when Tony asks his distraught shrink if there’s anything she’d like to tell him — hinting that maybe there are some necks he could break on her behalf — there’s a long pause while she thinks about it. When she finally says no, I felt disappointed, both in her answer and in my own morality. When did I get to the point where I sided with Tony so much that I wanted her to say yes?

Maybe that’s why I avoided The Sopranos for so long before I finally got sucked in. I didn’t want to relate to Gandolfini. When the show debuted, I had seen him only once before, playing a wide-grinning hitman in 1993’s True Romance. My sister and I watched the film up until the moment when Gandolfini drags Patricia Arquette around by the hair and punches her in the face with such a lack of emotion you’d think he was just working on his bowling form. It was a visceral performance, one that was difficult to watch. My college-age sister started crying so hard we had to leave the theater.

Years later, Gandolfini would appear on Inside the Actors Studio, telling James Lipton that learning to channel his anger elevated his acting. On the set of The Sopranos, he’d bang his head on things and walk around with rocks in his shoes; he’d deprive himself of sleep for nights prior to filming just to get riled up for an emotional scene. But if there was any emotion that Gandolfini conveyed better than anger, it was dread — a creeping sense of doom that would prove prescient against the backdrop of 9/11 and the coming recession. ”It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he tells Dr. Melfi in the pilot. ”But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Nose-breathing hard with his mouth clamped shut, he captured a familiar anxiety: that death could come for him — or anyone else — at any time. And yet he didn’t so much show that fear as let you know that he’d swallowed it, as if doing so were his patriotic duty. ”What ever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type?” he asks in the same episode. ”That was an American.”

Ironically, Gandolfini might have been the closest thing TV’s ever had to Gary Cooper. He became an unlikely sex symbol, perhaps because he combined Cooper’s strong, silent brooding with a tenderness that felt very of-the-moment in those emo times. If Tony believed the greatest era had passed him by, Gandolfini created another one right in front of us, building a golden age of television while lesser mortals watched him from the couch.

If anything, Gandolfini might’ve played his best role too well. Season by season, Tony Soprano began to eat him alive. Gandolfini steadily gained weight, arguing that he couldn’t carry himself right on camera when he was thinner. He and his first wife divorced in 2002 (around the same time that Tony and Carmela broke up), and according to Martin’s book, the related papers contend that he had problems with drugs and alcohol. As Martin tells it, Gandolfini regularly skipped work that year. Then he’d feel so guilty about disrupting production that he’d shower the cast and crew with gifts — a sushi chef one day, massages another. But when Chase paid to shut down the Westchester County Airport for a scene, Gandolfini didn’t just fail to show up — no one could find him. Four days later, when the producers were starting to seriously worry, Gandolfini finally resurfaced. He was calling from Brooklyn, where he’d stumbled into a beauty salon and asked to borrow their phone. He had no money and needed a way home, so he’d dialed the only number he knew by heart.

It’s sad to think that Gandolfini’s own story ended just like The Sopranos did: too abruptly, long before it was over. He earned other memorable parts after that finale aired, playing a foulmouthed general in In the Loop and a tough CIA director in Zero Dark Thirty. When I think about Gandolfini now, I can hear Tony’s voice, likely annoyed about nostalgic tributes like this one. ”’Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” Tony used to say. But the only way to ease the shock of losing Gandolfini is to remember his work. He will be missed — and now it’s his fans who feel, as Tony once did, that we’re at the end of an era.