The news that actor James Gandolfini died yesterday, at a too-young 51 years old, was certainly sad and in many ways shocking. A gifted and seemingly kind and humble actor, Gandolfini represented everything we love about the idea of the workman actor, rather than the flashy celebrity who happens to show up in movies and TV shows once in a while. It's undeniably sad, in a faraway, "most of us didn't know him" sense, that he's so suddenly gone. But what is it about James Gandolfini, or more likely about his most famous character Tony Soprano, that, in the wake of his death, seems to have endeared him so intensely to so many people?
Well, I suppose the easiest answer is that America loves a gangster. The seedy underbelly, the life of crime, the dastardly deeds done under a hushed code of honor. There's something both scrappy and oddly elegant about the Don Corleones and Henry Hills of the world — they travel the wild, fast-lane to the American Dream, they're tough and exciting, as we'd all like ourselves to be sometimes. Tony Soprano fit into this world, but of course what Sopranos creator David Chase did, with Gandolfini leading the charge, was delve deeper into a gangster's psyche than perhaps ever before, giving us 86 sprawling episodes that brought us ever closer toward the heart of darkness, but also toward enlightenment. We truly got to know this gangster, and eventually came to see in him what I think we'd always suspected was there: ourselves.
It's probably a cliché at this point to say that The Sopranos wasn't really a show about the mob, that Tony Soprano wasn't just a gangster. But you know what? Those sentiments are clichés for a reason; they're very much true. With The Sopranos, we got the often difficult to love, but somehow no less lovable for it, gangster we initially tuned in for, but then the show took us to much knottier places, exploring a particularly American psyche to its frayed and mysterious limits. And in that we learned a lesson about ourselves, about our country, about our era. The Sopranos was a brilliant, searching, wholly vital and enriching television series, and Gandolfini was at the center of it, leading us along but never reaching back to hold our hand.
Meaning, Gandolfini never tried to get us to like him. Sure, Tony could be funny and on very rare occasion do the right thing, but he was largely a monster, a heavy-breathing hulk of narcissism and sociopathy. By all accounts he should have been the villain, and on a less thoughtful series he likely would have been. But instead Chase and Gandolfini steered us toward the howling pain within Tony, the bleakness and despair that roared especially loudly in Tony, but probably did sound shiveringly familiar to most of us, in some way. The rage and despondency of having so much and yet feeling you have so little — that's America on the whole, isn't it? Though the series was grim and scary and oftentimes relentlessly depressing, there was a kindness to it. Even if the kindness was simply that the show dared to be blisteringly honest with us about a certain small corner of the human condition. And Gandolfini accepted that rather huge responsibility — of being our chief avatar in this exploration of nothing less than the core of our own nature — with such grace and astounding, unwavering commitment.
Gandolfini was never a huge star. His post-Sopranos career certainly had its share of highlights, among them a well-received turn in the Broadway smash God of Carnage and a sober but sensitive documentary about wounded Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, but he was not a frequently uttered household name, no matter what might've been. Now, the outpouring of memories and appreciations — in a volume unmatched of late, even in these "everyone must weigh in" web-culture times — shows us that he seems to have represented something far greater than a movie or TV star. Here was a guy who helped give The Sopranos's many fans a gift far greater than entertainment. He let us take comfort in the ways that Tony was so much worse than us, and yet allowed for quiet and cathartic moments of connectivity. Gandolfini gave such unflinching vividness to Tony's life so that we could better understand our own. It's no wonder then that so many people feel so sorrowful that his is now over.