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James Gandolfini, R.I.P.

By Rich Heldenfels Published: June 19, 2013


James Gandolfini, a TV legend for his performances as Tony Soprano, has died, according to published reports. The cause may have been a heart attack. He was 51.

In recent years, Gandolfini had acted regularly, including in "Zero Dark Thirty" and in "Not Fade Away," the film directed by "Sopranos" creator and mastermind David Chase. But as good as Gandolfini was in those and other films, they all pale next to what he did as Tony.

It was a dream part, it turned out, for a man who up to that point had been one of those actors whom you vaguely remembered for supporting roles in movies like "Get Shorty." With Tony Soprano, he was able to play an occasionally charming, rarely vulnerable, often brutal and thoroughly amoral character, a man who could make the right noises about loyalty to the mob and to his family but whose only real loyalty was to himself and his continued survival.

If there had been no Tony Soprano, there probably would not have been Vic Mackey, or Don Draper, or Walter White. To be sure, there were other antecedents for these bold blends of villainy and charisma, but Gandolfini made it whole by demonstrating the ordariness of Tony even as he commited the awful acts. (Killing a man while on a college trip with Meadow comes to mind.) I crossed paths with Gandolfini a time or two on TV press tours, when it was clear that he viewed encounters with the press as something to be endured, somewhat grudgingly. But in retrospect, while those of us who religiously watched "The Sopranos" would ponder every small gesture, Gandolfini did not need to offer elaboration or explanation any more than Chase was willing to do. Gandolfini put all his explanation in the performances.

Of course, again, he was handed a once-in-a-lifetime role. Perhaps a once-in-ever. When the Writers Guild of America released its list of the best-written series of all time, "The Sopranos" was at number one. But it is impossible now to imagine anyone else saying those words in as satisfying a way as Gandolfini did, with tones that could be querulous, conniving and terrifying, with body language that, in a slouch or a shrug, said far more than the dialogue offered. He was superb. And the day might have come when he found another role that had room for his immense talents. Now, instead, we have to content ourselves with the marvels of "The Sopranos," But marvelous there he was indeed.

My friend Alan Sepinwall, who chronicled "The Sopranos" better than anyone, has posted his thoughts about Gandolfini here.

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