“Standing in public in other people’s clothes, pretending to be someone else. It’s a strange way for a grown man to make a living.”
James Gandolfini was always defined by, and will forever be remembered for, his iconic role as Tony Soprano in David Chase’s critically acclaimed HBO series that changed the face of television as we see it today. The late, three-time Emmy award winning actor, with those tremendously sad eyes, painted an authentic, moving and at times chilling portrait of the murderous, yet tortured mob boss in what remains the single greatest and most important performance in modern television history.
Although he didn’t exhibit much ambition for a theatrical career in his early years, Gandolfini began acting with supporting roles in several popular Broadway shows. A 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire and a stage production of On The Waterfront, among others, launched an incredible career that would seamlessly shift between stage, television and cinema.
Over the course of his career Gandolfini made a name for himself playing tough, ruthless characters, but arguably none were more significant than his cinematic breakthrough in Tony Scott’s sublime romantic thriller True Romance. Not only did his magnetic performance as Virgil, a merciless henchman with a curious penchant for philosophy, evoke the harsh brutality of the entire project, but it would also be the performance which would earn him his landmark role as Tony Soprano.
Despite several smaller cinematic roles – Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty, Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican and the Coen’s glorious noir The Man Who Wasn’t There – it was only after The Sopranos’ dramatic conclusion in 2007 that Gandolfini had license to make the transition from small screen to big.
The standout performance from this period where he was at the height of his popularity arrived with In The Loop, Armando Iannucci’s American translation of his own acclaimed television satire The Thick of It. Playing a war veteran, he brought his typical abrasive and gruff sensibility to one of the film’s funniest scenes where he spars verbally with the equally biting Peter Capaldi.
Though he insisted on a departure from his typecast gangster characters for his most recent work, Gandolfini remained a powerful screen icon in supporting roles, from a show-stealing performance as the alcoholic and lewd hitman in Andrew Dominick’s politically charged thriller Killing Them Softly to the compelling appearance as a deeply pressured CIA director in Kathryn Bigelow’s polarising, yet undeniably engaging Zero Dark Thirty.
Rather surprisingly his standout performance in recent years could easily be as a voice actor for Spike Jonze’ adaptation of children’s picture-book Where The Wild Things Are. As Carol, another tormented monster, his mild-mannered tone and subdued aggression brought complexity to a character that the original source material barely hinted at. Even without his commanding screen presence Gandolfini still managed to deliver a heartfelt performance that evoked his previous ability to win an audience’s sympathy no matter how monstrous he became.
Many of us awoke yesterday morning to the deeply saddening news that this legendary actor had his remarkable career cut short at the tender age of fifty-one after suffering a heart attack while holidaying in Italy.
He will be sincerely missed, but never once forgotten.