RIP: James Gandolfini

gty_2011_james_gandolfini_ll_130619_wmainHaven’t thought about actor James Gandolfini, best known as Tony Soprano, for who knows how long, but this news kind of sucks. He passed away from a heart attack while on vacation in Italy. He was 51.

Kristopher Tapley remembers the actor’s impressive body of work:

He was outrageous and hilarious in Armando Iannucci’s 2009 comedy “In the Loop.” I secretly kept hoping for a cameo of his Lt. Gen. George Miller in Iannucci’s HBO series “Veep.” But I think he was perhaps most effectively used, ironically enough, by Spike Jonze as the voice of Carol in 2010’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Like the actor himself, it was a larger-than-life character. But even though Gandolfini wasn’t on screen, he breathed such soul into the role that it was really a next-level kind of vocal performance.

Most recently Gandolfini flirted with the awards season last year in “Not Fade Away,” “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s first foray into feature filmmaking. He gave what might be one of his finest performances as a conflicted father, eager for his son to become his own man but careful to not see it happen too fast. All the while he embodied the film’s spirit of a life lived free versus one lived in regret. It was a delicate piece of work, unsung, really.

Last year also brought a bit part in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Kathryn Bigelow knew exactly what she was doing casting him as CIA director Leon Panetta. It needed to be someone who could show up and impact the film immediately. For all the reasons stated above, Gandolfini was that guy, able to make you sit up and take note.

But, as Alan Sepinwall notes, his role of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano in HBO’s seminal show The Sopranos will be his — and television’s — towering achievement:

It was raw, astonishing work, year in and year out. It turned Gandolfini from an unknown into an icon, in a transformation he was never comfortable with. I’ve encountered many actors who are aloof about dealing with the press out of a sense of ego; Gandolfini’s unease seemed to come from a more genuine place. This was new to him, and too much. Early in the run of the series, he sent Christmas cards to TV critics to thank them for the nice things they had written about the show, and even put his home address on the envelopes. Later, on a night when he was receiving an award from the Television Critics Association, I saw him surrounded by reporters who wanted to interview him; he looked like a cornered animal, and when he won again in later years, he sent a video message.

Because of that discomfort, I don’t know that Gandolfini was that disappointed that the movie business never knew what to do with him, either during or after the run of “The Sopranos.” He had small, often interesting parts — a gay hitman in “The Mexican,” a moderate general in “In the Loop,” the frustrated father in Chase’s feature debut “Not Fade Away” — but always to the side of what the movie stars were doing. Some of this was typecasting — several times (most recently with “Zero Dark Thirty”), I heard moviegoers laugh in recognition at Tony Soprano popping up in the middle of somebody else’s movie — but also the difficulty of finding anything close to the perfect alchemy of actor and role that Gandolfini found with Tony Soprano. He was, again, a character actor, and a great (if underused) one.

And his work on the show made possible Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen, Walter White, Don Draper and every complicated, riveting anti-hero (or worse) who followed him. “The Sopranos” was an enormous hit, and told the business that the old rules need no longer apply.

That’s one hell of a legacy.

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