NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – Legendary acting coach Tanya Berezin once told an interviewer that what makes an actor great is the ability “to throw light … in some sort of inexplicable way” on “what makes people tick and live and thrive and what makes people not.” James Gandolfini, who died last week in Italy at 51, possessed that rare gift. Every moment he spent on the screen illuminated the human condition.
He was best known, of course, as star of “The Sopranos,” which ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, and was recently dubbed by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written show in the history of television. And plenty of “Sopranos” fans will tell you that the heart of the show was the sparkle of the writing. Others will cite the brilliance of the central irony, or even the precious settings, particularly the lovely upscale ordinariness of Tony and Carmela Soprano’s suburban New Jersey home, which to this day is said to attract busloads of the curious.
But as fast as the plot twists and snappy one-liners whirled, “The Sopranos” was ultimately an actors’ show, and the hub around which it all revolved was Gandolfini. Although it would be silly to compare “The Sopranos” to “The Godfather” movies, the quietly confident faithful husbands of the Coppola epics are in some ways less interesting as character studies than Gandolfini’s angst-ridden, anxiety-driven, adulterous mob boss — the cruel yet eerily sympathetic antihero who paved the way for Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and even “Mad Men’s” Don Draper.
I was a “Sopranos” early adopter — one of those who had more or less abandoned television as a source of serious entertainment, only to have my expectations confounded when the show premiered in January 1999. There was a sense of amazement — this is television? — along with a swift and profound admiration for the undisputed leader of the ensemble cast. Gandolfini was a large man, but it was his acting, not his bulk, that filled the frame.
His sense of timing was impeccable. There’s an episode in season 2 where his oft-bumbling nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, upset about a new appointment in the family, grumbles, “Guess I didn’t get the memo.” Tony snaps out his retort with perfect disdain: “Would you have read it if you got one?”
And the other side of Tony’s personality, in a season 6 episode, when his cousin mentions in passing the killing of a pet dog when they were children. Tony, moments earlier bantering and crude, is for an instant is overcome by a fugitive emotion and, before recovering himself, mumbles with a child’s helplessness: “Father told me he took him to live on a farm.”
He could snap on a dime from one mood to the next, and was practically an ensemble cast all by himself. There was the earnest family man who wept upon realizing that his son had inherited his anxiety disorder, and the wildly selfish philanderer who went so far as to beat a friend savagely for taking up with his former mistress. There was the live-and-let-live libertarian who resisted enormous pressure to execute one of his captains for being gay, and the instinctive racist who did all he could to drive a black boyfriend out of his daughter Meadow’s life.
Sometimes he was several things at once, as in the first season, when he is the doting father who takes Meadow to visit colleges in Maine, discovers a former criminal colleague now in witness protection, takes time out to murder him with his bare hands — and still picks up his daughter on schedule.
Gandolfini is often described as an unknown prior to “The Sopranos.” This is not entirely true. His star turn was presaged by a number of minor but memorable film roles. Two in particular give us a glimpse of the different facets of screen personality that would later be combined in Tony Soprano.
First was Gandolfini’s delicious comic performance in Barry Sonnenfeld’s underappreciated 1995 film “Get Shorty.” Gandolfini played Bear, an ominous, hulking Hollywood stuntman-turned- bodyguard, who tries to intimidate a Miami gangster played by John Travolta. Both tussles are brief — they last only seconds — and both times Bear comes out on the short end. The humor is in Gandolfini’s remarkable sequence of facial expressions, from scary to pained to acquiescence, just like that.
That same year Gandolfini had appeared in the late Tony Scott’s “Crimson Tide,” a thriller about a mutiny aboard an U.S. nuclear submarine. Gandolfini played Lieutenant Bobby Dougherty, who leads the faction of the divided crew supporting the decision of the captain (Gene Hackman) to obey an ambiguous message and fire nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union. Hackman is stern and dutiful, but Gandolfini, as he contemplates blowing the enemy to bits, seems fiendishly eager, even gleeful.
Like any television show, “The Sopranos” was at times uneven. The third season episode “Pine Barrens,” often cited by critics as one of the best in the entire series, always struck me as a bit of a bore — most likely because the focus is on two members of Tony’s gang stumbling around in the frozen woods searching for a Russian mobster, with Gandolfini himself relegated to a tiny part.
Without Gandolfini, “The Sopranos” would have been a very different show. Edie Falco, for instance, was consistently outstanding as his wife, Carmela, but one suspects that the talented Lorraine Bracco, originally offered the role before she became the psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi instead, would have fit just as smoothly. And Bracco herself seemed increasingly marginalized in the show’s later seasons, as creator David Chase’s original semi-comic conception — a gangster seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder — slowly yielded to its own back story of mafia power struggles and familial melodrama.
There are finer actors, of course. But there are few who strike us, from first glimpse, as so much bigger than the screen that contains them. Hugh Laurie comes to mind: But for eight seasons of “House” he played but a single mood, albeit with relentless precision.
Gandolfini had the harder job, projecting a broad and fast-changing sweep of emotion week after week.
“The Sopranos” helped return quality to television drama, and James Gandolfini was central to that accomplishment. One is reminded of how Louis Menand once described the mission of Pauline Kael, longtime film critic for the New Yorker: “making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art.”
Gandolfini probably didn’t imagine that the show whose cast he led would have the same effect. But his legacy will remain a cascade of popular television programs that people who search for quality aren’t embarrassed about to watch, debate and blog about.
After “The Sopranos” ended its run, Gandolfini returned to the big screen. His parts were mostly small — think “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — but oh, how he filled them! I’m not so foolish as to suggest that we will never see his like again. So let me simply say that this fan is going to miss him.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.