‘I have to be the sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.’ A Farewell to James Gandolfini, Who Brought to Life One of the Greatest Characters Ever on TV

Jun 20, 2013

I’m a baby boomer born 10 years after my favorite movie, “Casablanca,” had its premiere. The best movie that’s been made in my lifetime thus far is “The Godfather.”

And the TV show that I believe has had the most impact on TV in my lifetime is “The Sopranos.”

I don’t think it’s coincidental that both “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” are so quintessentially American, and that they both deal so brilliantly with family and violence and the slang that makes up so much of our lives.

As dazzling as the writing is in “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos,” a lot of what sears these works into our memories is the acting.

And, as in most great works, it’s hard for us to imagine other players in the iconic parts. Ronald Reagan was considered to play Rick in “Casablanca,” before Bogart got the part. Give me a break. Richard Conte was considered to play Don Corleone before Brando got the part. I truly love Conte, but no.

And James Gandolfini, speaking of being cast as Tony Soprano, once told Vanity Fair, “I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney, but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that.”

Thank God they didn’t. In the last 12 hours since we first learned of Gandolfini’s unexpected death in the prime of his life at age 51, the outpouring of sadness and grief that I have heard from my friends — both men and women — has been unprecedented in my experience. Even those of us who didn’t really know Gandolfini the man sensed a hugely talented actor who didn’t crave the spotlight and projected an unassuming, unpretentious demeanor.

It was this everyman aspect that Gandolfini clearly incorporated into his portrayal of Tony Soprano that helped draw us to his character.

“The Sopranos” debuted four months after “Seinfeld” was last broadcast on NBC. The top-rated shows on TV when “The Sopranos” was first broadcast by HBO on Jan. 10, 1999, were “ER,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Veronica’s Closet,” “Jesse,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Home Improvement.” The most daring drama on TV at the time was “NYPD Blue,” which had debuted six years earlier.

“The Sopranos” made such a cultural impact that Bob Wright, then running NBC, sent out to various folks in Hollywood a tape of the show, accompanied by a note asking them whether NBC could air such material.

Wright later told me, “My point in sending out the ‘Sopranos’ [tape and memo] was that I just didn’t believe that we could do that kind of a show. And people kept saying to me, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ … And I said OK, here, watch an episode and tell me where and how we put this on-air on NBC. How does this work? And they all wrote back and said, ‘Well, of course you can’t use that episode — or any of the others, for that matter. It is a great show [but] you can’t use it. You’d have to clean up all the language, and you can’t have any of the sex and the violence, but it’s a great show so when are you doing it?’ I said, ‘I’ve just sent it to you.’”

But the success of “The Sopranos” gave a blueprint to HBO itself, as well as Showtime and Starz and basic cable networks, that quality dramas that might at first glance seem too daring or offbeat could work.

In a remembrance posted last night on the website of The New Yorker, that magazine’s editor, David Remnick, declared that “The Sopranos” was the best TV series ever. He continued, “Gandolfini was the focal point of ‘The Sopranos,’ the incendiary, sybaritic neurotic who must play the Godfather at home and at the Bada Bing but knows that everything — his family, his racket, his way of life — is collapsing all around him. … In the dozens of hours he had on the screen, he made Tony Soprano — lovable, repulsive, cunning, ignorant, brutal — more ruthlessly alive than any character we’ve ever encountered in television.”

I want to close this column by reprinting an edited version of another column. The following was written by the superb, Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales, who we were fortunate to have as a TV columnist for us for a number of years here at TVWeek. Tom wrote this for us in March 2004, in the middle of the original run of "The Sopranos" on HBO.

By Tom Shales

“The Sopranos” teaches us many things: That it’s bad to lose your temper and kill somebody. That food is life, and though carbs may be fattening and in disrepute right now, they are also delicious. And that where the federal government is involved, paranoia is the best policy, and not just if you’re a crook, either.

[“Sopranos” creator David Chase has] given television one of its milestone shows, and cable its best drama series ever. … There’s appointment TV and must-see TV; “Sopranos” is, though it hardly sounds flattering, quicksand TV. I watched four new episodes in one day and then was cranky HBO hadn’t sent more.

It’s a case, too, where critics and public agree — a good example to refute the notion that critics are out of touch and only like snooty-fruity fare adapted from 18th-century novels. “Sopranos” must be HBO’s best-reviewed series and its most-watched, averaging 11 million viewers. When “Sex and the City” said goodbye recently, in an episode that received torrents of hype, it pulled in its highest audience ever: 10.6 million viewers.

Normally “Sex” attracted about 6 million, which is very gratifying to HBO. But “Sopranos” is in a league of its own in terms of appeal as well as quality.

Chase recently said that one of the hardest things about writing “Sopranos” episodes is that “these people don’t do anything,” by which he meant they don’t travel, read or go to the movies or other things that characters normally do, so it’s hard to keep them busy while the narrative marches on. Two things they do in abundance are eat and watch television. In some episodes, nearly every other scene is set around a table full of food — a restaurant, a dining room, a country club terrace, a kitchen.

More unusual is that we actually see people watching TV, like people do in real life. They watch old movies, reruns of “The Honeymooners,” nature documentaries about furry, burrowing little creatures and the news. They’re particularly riveted in [an upcoming episode] to a TV station’s report on a whole gaggle of gangsters sent to the slammer in the 1980s who are now being let out — a major catalyst for new story arcs.

It’s doubtful “The Sopranos” will be held up as an offending culprit in the current uproar over sex and violence on TV and radio, even though there are extremes of both sex and violence in the series. The show’s so good that even a congressman or an FCC commissioner can probably detect that the sex and violence are wholly justifiable within the milieu depicted.

And violence is handled in a way that gives it greater impact than it usually has on TV, without celebrating it the way modern-day crime shows and action movies do. It’s deglamorized to the point, often, of true tragedy …

The commercial genius of “Sopranos” is that in concept it would appear to be a show with strong male appeal and of little interest to women. But by emphasizing Tony’s home life, his wife’s liberation and his relationship with his female shrink, Chase broadened the constituency (basically to include everybody). This upcoming season, wi
th Tony’s family already tearing asunder, his underworld empire is also splitting at the seams. He is a fascinating character, one moment to be reviled, the next to be pitied, occasionally even to be envied.

Admit it: There is a profane allure to the idea that if some moron cuts you off in traffic or rams your rear end and then drives away, you could have him killed.

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco have by now so assimilated their characters that it never seems like “acting,” though, of course, it’s great acting.

“Sopranos” creator David Chase released a statement yesterday when he heard about Gandolfini’s death. Here’s how the statement ended: “[H]e was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”

I think millions of us who were not anywhere as close to Gandolfini as Chase was know exactly what Chase means.

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