To call Tony Soprano one of the best performances ever captured on film should be an exaggeration, but in truth it’s an understatement. In six seasons of The Sopranos we followed Tony through every emotion that a human being could experience—from the peaks of highest joy to the depths of self-pitying despair, with frequent glimpses into the existential sorrow underneath it all. We stuck it out with Tony, no matter how bad he got, because he felt real to us, and he felt so real to us because of the work of actor James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack yesterday at 51.
Creator David Chase sold The Sopranos to HBO with a high-minded concept, a mob boss visits a therapist to deal with the stresses of his job, but from the beginning it was clear that Chase had more ambitious things on his mind. The series would go on to be a microcosm of American ideals and excess, a sermon at times on a dangerous, empty culture, but none of that would have a center without Gandolfini. He inhabited Tony with such wounded desperation that we rooted for him, that we identified with him, no matter how far into the gutter he took us.
Everything that is now so great about television The Sopranos did first. In its brilliant successors, from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to The Wire, we see echoes of Gandolfini’s Tony. Bryan Cranston wouldn’t get those long, simmering takes that allow us to watch the gears turning in Walter White’s mind if we’d not so enjoyed watching Tony plot and scramble to stay alive.
And staying alive is really what The Sopranos was all about, from its Freudian beginnings to its bleak, existential ending (yes, Tony dies). Tony is pure reaction, constantly seeking the next score, the next lay, the next high to avoid the truth of his own evil. He is, as is made explicitly clear in the final season, a monster—but he’s us as monster, and Gandolfini’s tenderness allowed us to forgive Tony in ways we will never forgive Walter White or Don Draper.
Because of his hulking frame, Gandolfini was cast early in his career as the tough, most memorably in his brutal turn in 1993’s True Romance. In that movie Gandolfini makes the most of little moments to turn a standard movie thug into something more elemental. His vicious beating of Patricia Arquette remains one of the most disturbing fight scenes in film history, and much of the impact of the moment is in Gandolfini’s murderous glare.
But it was Gandolfini’s vulnerability that stood out the most. He had an ability to connect with the softest parts of his personality which elevated movies like 2001’s The Mexican—a movie sold on the star power of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts that is chiefly remembered today for Gandolfini’s sensitive turn as a closeted hitman. His sad, gravelly voice-over work in Where the Wild Things Aregave the film a gravitas that kept it from floating too far into whimsy or melancholy.
Tony Soprano was a role that would have always remained impossible for Gandolfini to escape. In the past few years he had appeared in small but memorable supporting roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly. The latter performance was especially vivid, as Gandolfini brings a sad, nervous grace to an otherwise tedious film. That may be the greatest testament to Gandolfini’s abilities—he was such a supremely gifted actor that you just couldn’t look away when he was on screen. He brought the unpredictable with him, and dared you to love the awful characters he played.
Gandolfini was that rare actor who was so accomplished, yet still held unlimited potential for the future. As great as he was, there was always the promise that he could do more. To lose him at only 51 feels wrong. For his family to lose him only eight months after the birth of his second child, a daughter, feels cruel. The loss is as jarring and unnerving as the infamous “cut to black” ending that took Tony Soprano from our TV screens. Gandolfini’s performance remade a medium, but more than that, it gave us a clearer vision of humanity than any actor had before.