updated 06/20/2013 AT 9:15 AM ET
•originally published 06/20/2013 AT 9:40 AM ET
In a nutshell: James Gandolfini gave one of the greatest performances in one of the greatest roles in one of the greatest series at the dawn of what is now regarded as television’s new golden age.
In fact, you could probably remove those qualifying one of”s and still find heads nodding in agreement among critics, viewers and whatever poor thugs are left hanging around the Bada Bing club, nursing their beers and watching the dancers.
Gandolfini, who died at age 51 in Rome on Wednesday, was known throughout the world for his six seasons on The Sopranos (1999-2007), the classic HBO drama about a mob boss living in suburban New Jersey with his wife, two kids and some occasional, possibly symbolic ducks in the backyard.
Mobster and “waste management” executive Tony Soprano, as brilliantly conceived by series creator David Chase, was perhaps meant to put the kibosh on the romanticized Corleones of The Godfather, ruthless killers who nonetheless had the smooth beauty of movie stars, eyes full of regret and an air of tragic inevitability.
Mr. Soprano was nothing of the sort: He was large-bellied, barrel-chested, balding and hirsute – even his short nose had the upturn of a bear’s snout. He was saddled with anxieties and mother issues. Capable of familial warmth and concern, he displayed a kind of grudging, often sour humor. He was also a merciless brute (one Wikipedia count credits him with eight murders). And yet he emerged a bigger hero than the Corleones had ever been.