Remembering James Gandolfini, the model for every anti-hero on modern TV

Jaime Weinman on the actor best know for his role as Tony Soprano on seminal HBO drama

(Barry Wetcher, AP Photo, HBO)

Shocking news: actor James Gandolfini has died suddenly at the age of 51. TMZ and others are reporting that he suffered a heart attack while attending a film festival in Italy.

Gandolfini, of course, is best known for playing Tony Soprano on The Sopranos. This was a seminal performance on the seminal TV drama of its era, perhaps of all time. As everyone noted, he didn’t look or sound anything like the kind of person who would have been allowed to play leads on any conventional TV drama in 1999: by that time, network television was already on an inexorable march towards conventionally beautiful leads. Gandolfini was not conventionally beautiful, he always seemed older than he was (he wasn’t even 40 when he got the part of Tony Soprano), and he had already become typecast, at a young age, as gangsters or people with gangland connections. (After he first gained attention, he played the doomed, mob-connected brother in a Broadway version of “On the Waterfront.”) That made him perfect for “The Sopranos,” a show that wasn’t going to play by the rules that regular TV dramas had set down, and a show that depended on a leading man who could convincingly embody a mobster and make him a real person – not an epic figure like the gangsters in movies, but someone who could commit crimes and still be realistic enough to play all the family and therapy scenes.

Gandolfini did it, and in doing so he became the model for almost every anti-hero performance on modern TV drama: the guy who is relatable enough to invite into our home week after week, yet edgy enough that we can’t forget what a louse he is. And while he didn’t have beauty, he had something far more important – charisma. You could believe him as a leader, as a boss. He dominated his scenes, and he didn’t need big speeches to be dominant; he just knew what to do so we would look at him. The power of his presence is so great that other shows wished they could find a Gandolfini; the creator of “Boardwalk Empire,” a former Sopranos writer, said publicly that Gandolfini was the person who came to mind when he wrote the character. And the people who have come after Gandolfini, the great anti-heroes of television, have all at least had Gandolfini to look back on and learn from. Gandolfini had almost nothing in TV to base his character on: there were movie gangsters and TV anti-heroes to learn from, yes, but never a man like this as the hero of a continuing series. In essence, he had to take the character of a typical TV villain – someone who is used to committing crimes and sees it as a normal part of life – with the character of a typical TV hero, the man who deals with family and work issues that are familiar to us. And on top of that combination, he had to layer in the moral ambiguity of a man who doesn’t live up to what is expected of him in any of his roles. He and David Chase made that character almost from nothing – and from that character came everything we take for granted in TV today.

Here is what is often cited as the seminal moment in the series, and in all of modern television: the scene in an early episode where, for the first time, we see Tony Soprano murder someone. This was the turning point, since it was the exact moment where we lost the chance to consider Tony a cute lovable gangster; Chase wrote the scene so there would be no redeeming quality in the murder, no question of the other guy asking for it or taunting him (like in The Untouchables, let’s say). We had to see it as something that Tony does in the course of his professional duties, and something he also enjoys doing. And after playing Tony for only a few weeks, Gandolfini had to play all this and yet make the character someone we would still want to watch as the protagonist of a series. The performance is impressive in and of itself, but again, it was also uncharted territory for a TV hero; Gandolfini had to figure out how to play this episode, play it without compromise, and still remain a guy we wanted on our screens. It’s hard to say exactly how he does it, except by being so incredibly watchable, so much so that your eyes go to him at all times.

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