James Gandolini has died. Only 51, he passed away on a trip to Italy, of an apparent heart attack. It is tough news for those of us who admired Gandolfini’s acting and held out hope that, at some point, we might see a bit more of The Sopranos.
Many people consider The Sopranos to be one of the best — and maybe the best — TV shows ever made, and James Gandolfini was its spiritual core. His Tony Soprano was one of the most fully realized TV characters ever to grace the small screen. Viewers understood his angst and sympathized with his crises, cringed at his extraordinary episodes of hyperviolence and serial philandering, celebrated his successful schemes, marveled at his generosity and quick turns of mood. The character was the product of great writing, but also of Gandolfini’s brilliant acting.
My favorite Sopranos scenes were from the early years, between Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and Nancy Marchand as his formidable, emotionally brutal mother. It was naked, powerful, astonishing stuff. Their convincing portrayals of a devoted son and a caustic mother in a devastating family relationship — and the flashbacks to Soprano’s boyhood — made the notion of a mob boss going to a therapist seem very plausible, indeed.
The Sopranos was TV lightning in a bottle, with the perfect combination of concept, cast, and writing. It will be enjoyed by TV viewers for so long as people appreciate talent. Fifty-one is much too young for a talent like Gandolfini’s to exit the stage, and his death is an enormous loss for his family, his friends, and his fans.