Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini 1961-2013


“In life, it’s not men that count, it’s the man.”

It is with sadness this morning that I awoke to news of the death of James Gandolfini at the age of 51 of a suspected heart attack while holidaying in Rome with his son. It is far too young an age to bid farewell to anyone but particularly for somebody who brought such talent into the world and through the entertainment he provided made the everyday lives of millions around the world just that little sweeter. He was a peerless talent and one who’s passing will long be lamented.
Mr Gandolfini was born into a working class New Jersey family in 1961. His father was an Itailian immigrant who had a number of jobs including bricklayer and stone mason while his mother was a cafeteria chef.  He was not somebody born to be an actor and indeed worked as bartender and a nightclub manager before he was introduced to acting at the age of 25 by a friend who took him to an acting class. His talent and hard work was such that he soon began to build a career as a character actor making his Broadway début in a 1992 revival of Tennessee Williams classic A Street Car Named Desire.


Like so many men of his stature and ethnicity, it was as playing Italian-American tough guys that Gandolfini first found fame. He brought a brutal charm to the role of Virgil, a Mafia hit man in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarantino. From there he built a steady career as a character actor playing in small roles in big Hollywood pictures like Crimson Tide, Get Shorty and Night Falls on Manhattan. He was however still largely an unknown when in 1999 David Chase cast him to star in his new HBO Mafia-themed family drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano.  He said of the role in 2001:

I thought it was a wonderful script…But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say, a little more appealing to the eye.

It was a role that made him famous across the globe and offered him the chance to bring his great acting talent to bear on a character worthy of it.  To me, what made his performance so compelling was that he made Tony endearing even lovable at times but yet never compromised on the fact that he was a hard man, a gangster who could be brutally violent and display little remorse afterward. The Sopranos went on to change how people viewed television, pushing the limits of what was thought possible.  By all accounts Gandolfini was a lovely man in person but yet he seemed to inhabit the role of Tony completely on the screen. If you have yet to see it, take the time. Across six series The Sopranos brings the viewer on a journey through an epic saga of family, loyalty and the corruptive power of crime.


For James Gandolfini, The Sopranos brought him fame, wealth but above all recognition of his talent. For me his performance will remain as one of the best I’ve ever seen for many years to come. It was not however the limit of his talents. In the years since that final cut to black brought an end to the series and perhaps Tony Soprano himself, he has taken on a wide variety of roles to great acclaim. He was a profane and irritable armchair General in the British satire In the Loop and the voice of Carol in the big screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He played a damaged and grieving man opposite Kristen Stewart in the much underappreciated Welcome to the Rileys.


He was nominated for a Tony award for his performance as an angry parent in the Broadway drama God of Carnage opposite Jeff Daniels who said this morning:

If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in 'God of Carnage,' we played 320 performances together. He didn't miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.”

Last year he delivered an entertaining turns as the CIA Director in Katherine Bigelow’s account of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. It was a different type of role and hinted at the imposing gravitas he now brought to his performances as he aged. He continued to work with HBO, producing a number of documentaries for the channel including Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq and was next to be seen on a new drama series called Criminal Justice.
He is survived by his wife and two children. I leave the final words to Sopranos creator David Chase and I include my favourite scene from the show below.

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. He was my partner… He was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."








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