James Gandolfini: An Appreciation

Late actor turned Tony Soprano character into a cultural reference point.

When James Gandolfini died at the age of 51 on Wednesday, friends, fans and contemporaries in the entertainment world mourned the death of a Hollywood legend.

The man who will forever be identified with the lead role on “The Sopranos,” which revolutionized television during its six-season run, reportedly died of a heart attack in Italy. He was said to be vacationing and planned to visit the 59th Taormina Film Festival.

A wide cross section of entertainers, creators, film legends, TV personalities and even politicians took to Twitter to express their grief just after the news broke. The long list includes senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, Olivia Wilde, Will Arnett, Ewan McGregor, Jermaine Dupri, Rob Lowe, Russell Simmons, Alyssa Milano, Rainn Wilson, Damon Lindelof, Kevin Smith, Mia Farrow, Lance Bass, Jimmy Kimmel, Rose McGowan, Kristin Chenoweth, Nia Vardalos and many more.

That such a wide range of people from different backgrounds and careers were affected by his death speaks volumes of Gandolfini’s life, his talent and charisma. It certainly says something about the impact of his most famous role.

Tony Soprano is a cultural reference point, a ubiquitous character everyone knows, even at a time when options for entertainment have expanded and gone further into deeper niches. The show was about a mob boss who decides to see a therapist, but in large part because of Gandolfini’s iconic performance, it grew to become so much more than that.

Gandolfini rightly won three Emmys in the role, which was the center of an extraordinarily talented ensemble. When somebody mentions Tony Soprano, it often has as much to do with Gandolfini’s complex and nuanced portrayal as it does the character’s Mafia don status. A search for “Tony Soprano” on RapGenius brings up multiple examples of rappers dropping his name, including Gucci Mane, Future, E-40, Xzibit, Rick Ross, Chris Webby, Rakim, Cassidy and, most famously, Jay-Z.

When we saw Tony strangle that snitch to death while on a college tour with his daughter, we knew “The Sopranos” was unlike anything we had ever seen before on television. Its mix of the mundane and the psychopathic predated “Dexter,” for starters. “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner worked on “The Sopranos.”

The heavy breathing, the sweat-filled fever dreaming, that gaze, the playful courtships and the terrifying menace, the tough decisions, the selfish moves — nobody could have handled those as adeptly as Gandolfini. At times it felt so real that it was hard to determine where the character ended and the actor began.

Gandolfini admitted as much when speaking about his co-star Edie Falco in the exhaustive oral history of “The Sopranos” published in Vanity Fair.

“Of course, I love my wife, but I’m in love with Edie,” he confessed. “I don’t know if I’m in love with Carmela or Edie or both.”

Already a theater veteran, Gandolfini hit Broadway in 1992 in “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. Gandolfini’s breakout movie role was as the hitman Virgil in “True Romance” in 1993. This writer came to love him thanks to his performance as a low-level enforcer in “Get Shorty” who stole the show in just about every scene he appeared in.

During the show’s run, Gandolfini took roles in feature films like “The Mexican” (with Brad Pitt), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and the box-office bomb “Surviving Christmas,” with Ben Affleck. His unmistakable voice boomed in “Where the Wild Things Are.” He was instantly believable as the C.I.A. director in “Zero Dark Thirty” and even tried comedy in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

Gandolfini had hooked back up with his partners at HBO, producing the TV movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn.” More recently, he was working to launch a new HBO miniseries called “Criminal Justice,” which he was also going to star in.

“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” HBO said in a statement. “He was a special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us.”

Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin; their daughter, Liliana, born in October of last year; and his 13-year-old son, Michael, from his first marriage, to Marcy Wudarski. Gandolfini was 51 years old.