Published on June 20th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
James Gandolfini: A Death in the Family.
I’ve never been to Italy and I’m about as far from fluent in the language as you could expect a 25-year-old Ohio-native to be–but those are the first words that came to me when I saw that James Gandolfini had passed.
If I’m being totally honest, it was a complete lack of words that hit me first upon reading about the actor’s sudden death Wednesday night–and then, the Italian.
My day job is in news, so I’m hardly shocked anymore by any story that hits the wire on a given day, but this one hit me with force. Great people die all the time; almost seven months into 2013, we’ve already lost pioneers like Jonathan Winters, Ray Manzarek, George Jones, and Ray Harryhausen. But Gandolfini’s passing marks the second time I’ve lost a personal hero this year, along with Roger Ebert who died shortly after I started this website.
What makes Gandolfini’s especially tough is that he was a mere 51-years-old and had decades of life, and work, still to go. Of all the celebrity deaths in recent memory, his blindsided me most–perhaps because he was quiet. His first big role produced one of the most memorable death scenes in film history and when HBO premiered The Sopranos in 1999, the world knew Gandolfini.
…Okay, so a couple million subscribers may have known him–but after a few seasons and tons of word-of-mouth, Tony Soprano was one of America’s favorite television characters.
I’ve written before about my undying love for the series but to any fan, Gandolfini’s passing was more akin to the loss of a family member than just another face that will pop up at the ‘In Memoriam’ segment of next year’s Emmys. We spent 86 hours getting to know every fiber of what made Tony tick, probably learning more about him than we do about most of our own relatives in a lifetime. I’m not going to write another piece about how Gandolfini’s performance in The Sopranos was the single greatest in television history, as it would be similar to writing a persuasive essay about George Washington being the first President–it’s simply a fact. However, to look at how he changed the perception of television would be a worthy tribute.
Prior to that landmark series, TV was always viewed as a notch above community theatre in the acting world. Serious film actors looked at taking a gig on the tube as a last-ditch effort to resurrect a dying career or take an easy payday. What Gandolfini did was show the depths you could take a performance on episodic television if given the right scripts, network, and supporting staff. In the years since The Sopranos, television has become littered with truly great characterizations on series’ like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, In Treatment, and Boardwalk Empire (two of which were created by ex-Sopranos writers).
You’ve also seen respected screen talent stepping back from Hollywood to take roles on television including Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Kevin Bacon (The Following), Bill Paxton (Big Love), and Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom)–often to great critical and financial success. I’m convinced this wouldn’t be the case had James Gandolfini not raised the bar as he did.
The man was seen most recently in a short but memorable turn in Zero Dark Thirty, on the Broadway stage in God of Carnage, and even on Nickelodeon in Nicky Deuce as part of a surprising Sopranos cast mini-reunion. He also collaborated again with David Chase for his upcoming film Not Fade Away–which would have surely been advertised as the pair’s reunion but will now sadly be marketed as one of Gandolfini’s final acts.
In the series, James Gandolfini always had a sadness about him, but I certainly hope he left that onscreen and found peace in his personal life. Speaking of his offscreen work, Gandolfini led a quiet, spotlight-free existence, instead using his platform to empower wounded veterans. It’s a damn shame that we lost him so young but the often-vapid world of entertainment is undeniably better because of his time here.
As for the rest of my Italian vocabulary:
Riposi in pace, e grazie.