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Remembering James Gandolfini’s greatest role.
Written by Joe La Puma (@JLaPuma)
It's a strange feeling when a great actor dies. We don’t just mourn the man; we mourn the way his work touched our lives. Especially if their most famous character was so much more than just a role they were playing. When the news broke last night that James Gandolfini died of a heart attack at the age of 51, I thought of his family (he's got a teenage son and a baby daughter born last October). But, selfishly, like a lot of people I'm sure, I also thought of my own, and the time we spent huddled around the TV Sundays at 10 p.m. to watch him as Tony Soprano on HBO.
It was a weekly tradition: We’d save gravy from our Sunday dinner so we could have seconds and eat along with the Soprano family. From 1999 to 2007, The Sopranos had my family and many others glued to their TVs for a show that was unlike any other that came before it. It was the show you talked about with your friends, and yearned for the next episode minutes after the one you were watching concluded. A lot of factors made it special, but Gandolfini was the main reason. It’s hard to believe now, but when he was first auditioning he thought he would never get the part. He once told James Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio that he expected HBO to cast someone “a little more leading-man type.” It’s now impossible to imagine anyone else playing a role that’s been called the greatest character in TV history.
My father would pretend to get every inside mob reference, and I'd ask him to explain what Tony meant when he was talking about things I didn't understand.
I'm a full-blooded Italian-American, and I was 16 when The Sopranos began its run. Watching Gandolfini as Tony Soprano with my family was, well, awkward at times. My mom in her thick Fran Drescher–esque accent would scoff at some of Tony's more vulgar moves. "That's disgusting—what a pig," she'd say when Tony would had sex with his strippers and his goomahs. Other times she was his biggest fan, moved by his sensitivity towards animals as seen through his love for his racehorse "Pie-O-My" and the feeding of the ducks that frequented his pool. The softer side of Tony allowed viewers to see that not every bone in a mafia boss’s body is evil. My father would pretend to get every inside mob reference, and I'd ask him to explain what Tony meant when he was talking about things I didn't understand.
My dad had a best friend named Carmine who could've been Gandolfini's Tony Soprano stunt double. It sounds cliché—I imagine if you polled every Italian they'd claim to have a figure in their life who resembled Tony somehow. But Carmine was Soprano in the flesh. He lived across the street from us, and although he didn't walk outside to get the morning paper in his bathrobe, everything else about him was Tony to a tee: the solid gold Rolex, the weird patterned short-sleeve dress shirts, the slicked back hair that only covered the non-balding sides of his head. He'd devour capicola out of white waxed deli paper, and breathe heavy when he was watching sports on TV.
Some people questioned whether Gandolfini’s character was good for the reputation of Italian-Americans, but I only saw the good in Tony Soprano when I compared him to Carmine. Carmine was generous and loving and you felt safe around him. Like Tony, Carmine loved animals; he used to throw steaks over his fence to feed his neighbor's dog. He would carry his money in a roll with a rubber band around it, which I started to do to emulate him. Later I saw Tony Soprano doing the same. The life of crime aside, our family would pick out certain scenes from The Sopranos and say, "That's just like Carmine."
In between seasons five and six of The Sopranos, Carmine was diagnosed with cancer. The news came as a big shock to my family. As a young person, watching someone who seemed untouchable affected by illness was confusing. Cancer can be merciless. I'll spare the details, but Carmine's health deteriorated and after only nine months he passed away. It was heartbreaking for my family to lose such a larger-than-life personality; we knew things would always be different without Carmine around.
Two months after his death, The Sopranos returned for its sixth season on March 12, 2006. In the middle of the 66th episode, “Members Only,” there's a scene where Soprano and his son A.J. are talking. "Let me tell you somethin', A.J,” Tony says. “I don't care how close you are, in the end your friends are gonna let you down. Family—they're the only ones you can depend on." I remember my mom and dad nodding in agreement after he said that, hammering home the point that everything should be family first. For better or worse, the character Gandolfini created was a part of our family every Sunday. Carmine was always a big family man, too. When I was five years old, he’d bring Dunkin' Donuts to our house every Sunday morning, with bagels and lox for mom and dad. He took care of everyone around him, but always put extra emphasis on family.
I watched the final season of The Sopranos series in two ways. First and foremost I was an obsessed fan trying to decipher the plot twists David Chase and his team of writers were creating. But the show was also a way to help me remember Carmine. Whenever Tony would make certain facial expressions, breathe heavy, or stab his pasta at the dinner table, we'd all look at each other with thoughts of Carmine in mind. That's how masterfully Gandolfini played his part. You watched Tony and you felt like you knew him. Gandolfini himself said that real wiseguys sometimes praised his performance. Some would even give advice, like “Dons don’t wear shorts.”
During his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, Gandolfini described Tony Soprano as “a man in struggle… He doesn’t have a religion, he doesn’t believe in the government, he doesn’t believe in anything except his code of honor—and his code of honor’s all going to shit. So he’s got nothing left. It was that searching. He had no center left. I really identified with that.” More than anything, Galdofini credited his character’s power to his parents. “My parents worked hard and were honest, good people,” he told Lipton. “These are the kind of people that I love and these are the kind of people I want to show in movies because I think they’re getting screwed.”
This was what motivated Gandolfini to create a character who became like a family member to a lot of people. When the screen went blank during the last scene of The Sopranos on June 10, 2007, my dad ran up to the TV and yelled, "What the fuck?" None of us in the room believed that the series would end so abruptly. Everybody had an opinion about the show’s ending—we won’t get into that debate here—but for my family we knew that a part of our lives was gone forever. A show that brought us together for an hour every week was over, and without being hyperbolic, it was sad.
The news that Gandolfini died while on holiday with his son in Italy brought that same sense of shock—yesterday's news, of course, being more severe. It’s a credit to the late actor’s work that his character’s demise hurt so deeply. When I revisit The Sopranos DVDs this weekend I’ll be watching for Tony's mannerisms and remembering both Carmine and Gandolfini. For now, here’s a toast to them both, in the words of Tony Soprano: "To the people I Iove. Nothing else matters."