James Gandolfini died yesterday of an apparent heart attack, and in the short space of time since his passing, enough has been said about this intimidating-looking actor many called, in reality, “a gentle giant,” that there’s little I can add without seeming lamely repetitive. Parts large and small, before The Sopranos and after, will always be eclipsed by his role as Mob boss Tony Soprano; as perfect a melding of performer and portrayal as has ever graced the small or big screen. All the obits and commemoratives say as much, usually in the lead.
So, what’s left to say?
That for those of us on this side of the Hudson – particularly those of us who, like Gandolfini, are of Italian descent – the loss is particularly acute, almost personal…because he was one of ours. He was one of us.
For all the praise his Tony Soprano garnered, for all the fans the character brought him across the country – and even around the world – I don’t think anybody appreciated how on-the-money Jersey-born Gandolfini was more than his Garden State people. Tony may have been a boss, but he was blue collar, working class, Jersey working class. He sounded like us, he looked like us, when he lost his temper he said, “Are you outta your fuckin’ mind?” like us. And he mourned the loss of the old neighborhoods, the old times like us. David Chase – another one of ours – provided Gandolfini with the sheet music, but it was Gandolfini’s native-tuned voice that made it sing.
I happened to have been working at Home Box Office throughout The Sopranos’ 1999-2007 run. I never met the man, but I would hear stories. He was the bane of the publicity people assigned to the show, greatly shy as he was and hating to sit for interviews, saying more than once, “I just don’t think I’m that interesting. I don’t think what I have to say is that interesting.”
I also heard that when he came back from a 2004 USO tour, visiting US troops in Kuwait and Iraq, his feeling for those young men and women – particularly the ones coming home damaged in body and mind – was sincere and deep. He executive produced the Emmy-nominated 2008 HBO documentary Alive Day Memories as his personal tribute to those who’d served and come home scarred and maimed, and as a pointed, pained reminder to the rest of us of the true cost of a war too many of us had grown numb to over the years.
I remember in interviews of the time he was asked why he didn’t appear on-screen during the doc; surely that would pull in more viewers. Gandolfini’s stand was the film belonged to the men and women who appeared sharing their painful memories of the day death brushed by them, close enough to steal some part of them away. It was times like that it was hard not to puff up a little and say to somebody, “He’s from Jersey, ya know.”
And that’s the difference for us. Show business lost a fine actor, a performer equally adept on stage, film, and TV. But we lost one of ours.
– Bill Mesce