Before The Sopranos, James Gandolfini was one of the more memorable Hollywood character actors, the kind whom, like J. T. Walsh, you recognised by face but had trouble putting a name to. He was in Crimson Tide and yet many would struggle to remember that. But even then there was something really special about him. His eyes were truly marvellous and imparted so many different emotions. They could be malevolent, mischievous, cold, wise, piercing and somewhat sad, and were framed by a face that was pugnacious and yet embracing. He was possessed of a hulking body, not just big and tall but with broad-shoulders that sloped like a butcher or a wrestler, so that just by placing him in close proximity to another actor a director could create a tangible sense of tension and menace. My clearest pre-Sopranos memory of Gandolfini is in a scene from Fallen, where he speaks to Denzel Washington while leaning on his desk. There was a fantastic feeling of threat emanating from Gandolfini, his massive figure all but dwarfing Washington, his grin unreadable in its depravity. In A Civil Action he was a loyal and sympathetic blue collar worker, struggling against corporate injustice yet unwilling to rat on his co-workers. In these two very different roles Gandolfini was equally convincing, his supporting roles and their limited appearance times utilising only parts of his varied, contradictory qualities.
The Sopranos took Gandolfini from the fringes and placed him centre stage, where the contradictions all came to the fore and in the process perfectly captured Tony Soprano’s ambivalent character. He was a mob boss and a family man, a cruel killer and a conflicted husband, a cold-blooded mafioso who suffers from panic attacks. Gandolfini could by turns be scary and genial, malicious and benevolent, often in the same scene. His sheer bulk and leery expressions made him a very persuasive mobster, but all of his other qualities brought a tremendous amount of pathos to Tony Soprano’s character. It’s his defining role, but equally The Sopranos was defined by Gandolfini.
During and after the show’s run, Gandolfini became a rare thing: an actor who became a genuinely premium performer through a TV role. But Tinseltown never came close to utilising his full potential the way The Sopranos did. He was a suitably evil opponent for Robert Redford in The Last Castle an otherwise disappointing film; in movies like The Mexican, The Taking of Pelham 123 and recently Zero Dark Thirty he was never less than excellent, but in supporting roles. Interestingly, he was never typecast as an Italian-American mobster despite the iconic nature of Tony Soprano, and it hints at a considered and selective approach to accepting parts. None of Gandolfini’s movies managed to make him a cinematic heavyweight in the vein of De Niro or Hackman, and he doesn’t have a signature work in cinema as he does in TV. It doesn’t matter, however: Tony Soprano is one of the most significant fictional characters in recent pop culture history, and Gandolfini’s dominant presence in the show is a legacy that will not easily be diminished. At 51 his death has come all too soon, and he will be much missed by fans and filmmakers alike.