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.
In his sprawling, messy humanity, he made Michael Corleone look like the tubercular poet John Keats.
This was partly due to the nature of serial television, with its domestic intimacy and ever-growing snowball of narrative and personal detail. But, really, it was Gandolfini, an extraordinary and, before The Sopranos, relatively unknown character actor.
With the constantly shifting revelations of Tony’s character over the show s run, Gandolfini could seem to have the stolid dependability of a landmark or the rancidness of landfill.
He obviously understood that his physical presence was the unshakeable groundwork of his performance, because as an actor he was very economical, moving quickly and unexpectedly from one mood to another.
It didn’t take anything more than a hand movement to realize just how powerfully remorseless Tony Soprano could be: In one of the great shocks in a series that had many, Tony killed his longtime protégé Christopher (Michael Imperioli) by silently clasping Christopher’s nose between his fingers and letting him choke to death on his own blood after a car accident.
Other than showing a slight impatience to get the job done, Tony was expressionless.
I used to think neither Gandolfini nor The Sopranos could ever quite resolve how we were to make sense of this strangely magnetic monster – or sociopath – but in retrospect, how easily does anyone, especially a mobster and family man, integrate every aspect of their personality?
Without Gandolfini’s magnificent acting precedent, it’s hard to imagine we would have had the enigma wrapped inside a riddle locked in a steamer trunk that is Jon Hamm as Mad Men’s Don Draper. Or Bryan Cranston as Breaking Bad’s morally rotting Walter White. Galdofini established the novelistic antihero who lives and breathes in our flatscreen TVs.
It is with all due respect that I say this: May Tony Soprano, who ended the show alive but with his eyes peeled for hitmen, some day sleep with the fishes. Gandolfini, may he rest in peace.