Yesterday, it came as a shock when it was announced that James Gandolfini had passed away at the early age of 51 after suffering a stroke in Rome, Italy. The actor had been in-country attending the Taormina Film Festival. Born and raised in New Jersey, the heavy-set actor, balding and rough around the edges, spoke with a thick New Jersey accent and was destined to be labeled as a character actor. He first appeared in the 1987 film Shock! Shock! Shock! Not long after that, he found himself in films like The Last Boy Scout, Sidney Lumet‘s A Stranger Among Us, True Romance and Crimson Tide. He and made his Broadway debut in the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire alongside Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. Then he landed his career-defining role. Tony Saprano.
David Chase‘s seminal HBO series The Sapranos, which first aired in 1999, ran for 6 seasons, earning Gandolfini a total of 3 Emmy’s and 3 SAG awards for his portrayal of the family patriarch. His screen presence was undeniable. It would become one of TV’s largest looming anti-heroes. The landscape of television would never be the same. The hard-hitting HBO drama was a game changer. The bar had been set. The lineage of such shows as The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men all trace back to The Sapranos.
Tony Saprano had become a household name. As did the actor who portrayed him. James Gandolfini stole the show as a gay hitman in The Mexican. He lended his vocal talents in a heart-wrenching turn as Carol in Spike Jonze’s mostly animated Where The Wild Things Are.
He produced two HBO documentaries on veterans, including the very emotional Alive Day: Home From Iraq.
Most recently, he appeared as CIA Chief Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty, and gave perhaps one of his best performance as the washed-up alcoholic hitman in Killing Them Softly. To off a small silver lining, we haven’t seen the last of Gandolfini. He’ll appear in the upcoming TV series Crimninal Justice, and his last completed project Animal Rescue, a film in which he co-stars alongside Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, due out in 2014.
David Chase, the creator of The Sapranos, had this to say about the actor:
“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For [wife] Deborah and [children] Michael and Lilliana, this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”
The death of an actor, no matter the circumstances, is always extremely sad. But to lose one so young, and so talented feels in some ways even more tragic. No doubt he’ll be missed. But for reasons unseen, he gave us long lasting performances we’ll not soon forget.