“What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American.” – Tony Soprano
The storytelling industry lost a more than talented actor yesterday. James Gandolfini died of an apparent heart attack in Rome, Italy on June 19, 2013 and while we will all be treated to the scores of memorials sure to come from Hollywood, I’d like to take a moment to remember him not as a colleague or as an object of critical study; I’d like to remember him as a fan.
Gandolfini’s career is a study in brilliance, but his greatest gift to his television audience was how his craft changed what we viewers expect from television performance. His portrayal of psychologically challenged, perhaps even maddened, crime boss Tony Soprano introduced fans to the complicated idea of the hero-villain. Before Dexter, Don Draper, and other such “dark grey” heroic characters came to our television screens, we had already met their model -Tony Soprano set the bar. Soprano challenged us to understand and accept a hero that we should hate but just couldn’t.
Gandolfini’s stagecraft along with David Chase’s film quality writing altered the landscape of television storytelling and set in motion the types of viewing habits that are now routine. The concept of shortened seasons and the ability to “binge-watch” shows became acceptable in part due to The Sopranos’s success and structure. And Gandolfini was the face of that show; he was the face of that change. He is a Mount Rushmore-level icon in television history.
As details of his death become clearer, the tragedy of a life cut short will be even more tragic and heartbreaking. He was young, too young to die. But his legacy is immense. My prayers and thoughts go out to his family and friends and yes, to his fans as well. He was a man who took his craft seriously and in an age of flashing celebrity culture, Gandolfini stood as a television giant who played a troubled man so contrary to his own shy, non-violent, and gentle nature. He will be remembered for much more than The Sopranos. He was a stage and film actor, a documentarian, and a humanitarian. But for those who will remember his work as Tony Soprano – he was a visionary, a prophet, and in many ways, the pilgrim who charted unmarked territory into the emotional power of television.