Certain actors transcend the characters they play, and exhibit a larger-than-life appeal that has a presence in every role. Others blend in totally to the character, making it hard to distinguish the character from the actor.
Very few actors do both. James Gandolfini was one of those few.
James Gandolfini was very much Tony Soprano — one of the most memorable characters in American film and television — but he also was much more than a single role. In 'Enough Said,' one of his last films, he displayed a softer touch, showing a character whose charm and sensitivity combine to make him likable but also vulnerable, probably more akin to the real life James Gandolfini than the mob boss he is best known for.
James died in June 2013, five years ago this month. I was taken aback at the news, having recently indulged in sporadic 'Sopranos' episodes during an HBO reshowing in spring 2013. Besides those episodes and 'Enough Said', 'The Mexican' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' were my only experience with the actor and his work. I knew that he was a special actor capable of a range of diverse characters, and his superstar role as Tony may have even overshadowed that range in the public's perception.
But that role was special. Truly, truly special. Besides the show revolutionizing episodic television, 'The Sopranos', much through James Gandolfini's acting, brought a thorough character study to the mainstream. This style, influenced by the likes of Bergman and Fellini (as show creator David Chase notes), proved to be of interest of viewers. Through gestures, looks, love, mistakes, laughs, wisecracks, and outbursts, Tony Soprano was a full-bodied human, demonstrating a realistic complexity to his persona. And as his fellows actors have noted in interviews, James's inherent likability underlined all of Tony Soprano's deeds, leaving audiences to find themselves rooting for a character who often cheated, schemed, and killed.
I eventually took the plunge and watched 'The Sopranos' in total, starting in the late fall of 2014 and ending in June 2015. No show — or time period in my life — has matched its influence on my aesthetic and outlook on film. At a time when I was questioning various paths in front of me and feeling a bit of professional stagnation, I found myself excited to dive in to the show each night, and loved studying the acting, writing, and cinematography. Indeed, that show in many ways led to the creation of Half Past Ten.
And James was such a large part of that show. Though I'm not too familiar with much of his other work (I haven't seen 'True Romance' yet), his role as Tony and the complementary interviews I watched countless times have given me a great deal of insight into the man behind the role. By all accounts he had an unconditional kindness, often being a beacon of cheer and encouragement on set.
He taught me about the craft of acting, and how a story can often be told through subtleties rather than overt dialogue. (Though, the dialogue on 'The Sopranos' was always witty and hilarious). His role as a Tony is a tour de force, carrying six seasons through his charisma. Whether it was in his dreams, in a coma, or at Satriale's, a massive audience witnessed a complex execution of an introspective character study. That influence on subsequent American television should not be understated, and the culture of television is better for it.
James Gandolfini is a classic case of a talent gone too soon, as his later career was beginning to show audiences more of his acting versatility and storytelling insight. In one of his last acts, he produced the HBO hit show 'The Night Of', which aired three years after his death.
Rest in peace James, we miss you.