A still from The Sopranos
It seems that these days we’re all running some terrible race to announce celebrities' deaths to each other, and to conjure up cheap gags about them. Wisecracks about Thatcher's death had been planned years in advance, the guy from Kriss Kross got a couple of lame Twitter gags, as did Uncle Monty from Withnail And I. Mandela’s not even gone yet but the town criers of the afterlife still keep jumping the gun.
I’m not going to pontificate about this very modern form of gallows humor, it’s a fairly natural reaction to a world where news breaks fast and careers can be made on breaking it the fastest. I’m sure I’ve done it myself. Last night however, in the last hours of a sticky summer evening, I got news of a celebrity death that nobody was joking about. A death that felt more like a death in our collective family than a news story we could make clever puns about.
James Gandolfini, American actor and American icon, had died at age 51. He had been on a family holiday in Italy when he suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving behind his second wife Deborah Lin, their daughter Liliana, and a teenage son named Michael from his first marriage to Marcy Wudarski.
For the laughing boys and girls of the internet, there seemed to be no jokes worth making. Twitter was a landscape of solemnity and respect. My Facebook page became a series of thumbnails of incredible Sopranos moments. It seemed that the unexpected death of such a fantastically talented human being at such a young age had momentarily bypassed our social media shock-jock tendencies.
I think people reacted like this for a number of reasons. First and most obviously, because of what he managed to do in The Sopranos. I’m sure a lot will be said in the next few days of how Gandolfini managed to make a monster so likable, of how he managed to make a killer so charming. But was Tony really that charming? I’m not so sure. He definitely had moments of charm, and moments where he was likeable. But one thing Tony always was, was knowable. And it's that, I think, that made his character so loved.
It’s very easy for an actor to seem likable with a bit of panache, some snappy suits, and good writing. The Sopranos had all of those things in abundance. But the genius of Gandolfini, his writers, and his directors was to create a character who seemed so real that you felt like you lived with him, whether he was moodily throwing eggs into his mouth at his breakfast bar at home or waiting alone in his car at 3 AM for a mark to show up.
Everything about that character was just so perfect. The way that he used to breathe when he got angry, the terrible suits that he wore, the way he kept his vest on during sex, his terrible hypocrisies and damning sentimentalities. The way that Gandolfini somehow managed to express an array of emotions using only his shoulders, communicating more about a man’s feelings with just those hulking, polyester-covered stumps than most other actors' flapping mouths, wildly gesticulating arms, and pensively furrowed brows could in a lifetime.
Tony seemed like someone I knew. Not necessarily somebody I liked or would want to spend much time with, but he felt like a person who was in my life rather than somebody I’d spend an hour a time with on my laptop.
This was no doubt abetted by the fact that Gandolfini himself just seemed like such a normal guy. Sure, he punched photographers, but in the way you or I probably would if we were 6’2" guys from New Jersey who’d had enough of their shit. (Especially if, as this great Vulture profile points out, we were as innately shy as Gandolfini.) He didn’t seem precious or self-obsessed like most actors and celebrities do. He seemed like a working-class guy with a lot of talent, the kind of famous person we’d all like to be. Someone who turned up, did great work, and had a great time without banging on about it.
I watched The Sopranos over the course of a few months in a period of my life that mostly revolved around not going to university and making a lot of late-night sandwiches. The show slowly became my life. It affected my speech patterns, my diet, my assessment of everyday situations. If I did something bad, I briefly found myself wondering if Tony or Paulie would be pissed off about it. When major characters died, it put me in a bad mood for days afterward.
It should also be said that Gandolfini was the first icon of the box set. The arrival of box sets—and their predominance over the last decade or so—has given people the ability to treat their favorite shows like books. It's allowed them to race through at their own momentum, to navigate their own depths. Gandolfini wasn't just the first icon of the box set, he was also the first box-set icon to die and, in my opinion, he's also the greatest character ever to have emerged from that clutch of shows that changed the way people think about TV—The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. It's not ridiculous to say that Gandolfini changed American acting, for he was the king of the HBO show, the leading man who cast the mold for the likes of Don Draper, Walter White, and Jimmy McNulty.
Before him, TV acting seemed more to be about doing a passable, consistent job as the low-budget shoots came thick and fast, while being pleasant enough to keep the audience on your side across a span of months. The cream of the acting crop was reserved for film, but even if an actor was talented enough to truly inhabit their character, films were always too brief for the audience to really get a sense of that. Gandolfini's skill as an actor was to combine the two to glorious effect, bringing the genius of the greatest big-screen actors to the depth and familiarity that is possible with TV work. After his portrayal of Tony, acting became all about magnetism, nuance, and total encapsulation. It was some new school of performance that rested somewhere between experimental theater and reality TV, and it changed the way we absorb culture forever.
I could go on and on about my favorite Sopranos moments and what a brilliant actor James Gandolfini was. If you haven’t seen it, you should. For me, it’s the definitive chronicle of 21st-century life. The finest examination of its decadences and its hardships, its comic tragedies and its tragic comedies. It’s a show about money, sex, power, and family, and it stands up there with any culture ever created. At the heart of it is James Gandolfini, a former bartender from New Jersey who managed to silence the death trolls by virtue of being a true legend of American performance—and maybe because we thought there was still a chance he could storm in and do this to us if he caught us laughing at him.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive