If you were to ask any diehard fan of television what the greatest show of all time was, odds are they’d probably say The Sopranos; the WGA, for example, did so earlier this month.
One of the reasons the show wound up being so successful — beyond the writing, the direction and its controversial ending — was the central performance by James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday of a reported heart attack at the age of 51.
The gruff, heavy-breathing actor had the almost insurmountable task of taking a menacing, scary, murderous character like mob boss Tony Soprano and making him seem as normal and sympathetic as your very own father; an Archie Bunker of sorts for the HBO generation. Not only did he succeed, Gandolfini over six seasons crafted a complex, intricate performance that carried the weight and brevity of an Oscar-winning turn from, say, Al Pacino or Marlon Brando. (For the record, Gandolfini won the TV equivalent of the Oscar, the Emmy, three times over the course of eight years.)
Indeed, few small-screen performances have come close to building as many emotional layers as Gandolfini did on The Sopranos — and if they did, they were probably acting in a scene alongside him. One need look no further than the awkward car ride between Tony and his daughter, Meadow, in “College,” in which Meadow point-blank asks Tony if he’s in the Mafia; or the explosive season 4 finale, “Whitecaps,” in which Tony and his wife Carmela’s marital woes come to a head in an epic, violent fight. Here was a guy who could kill another in one scene and eat ice cream in the next, and you’d love him just the same.
Even beyond The Sopranos, Gandolfini remained a familiar, often relatable presence. Like many of the great character actors who came before him, Gandolfini allowed you to see yourself and everyone you knew in his performances, from the tough-as-nails father in Not Fade Away to the kooky lieutenant in In the Loop. He may not have had the movie-star looks of, say, Brad Pitt, but Gandolfini didn’t need the glitz and glamor and special lighting of Hollywood to hit a home run.
Which is why it is especially hard to see him go. Writing this now, I feel that same blow to the gut I felt when I first found out that Michael Jackson died back in 2009. The world has once again taken away a man who had accomplished so much, but likely had so much more left in him to give.
In a way, it’s almost like watching that final episode of The Sopranos again — another harsh cut-to-black that leaves us confused, bewildered and a little pissed off.
In this case, though, there is no room for debate: Gandolfini was an incredible actor, and he will be greatly missed.