Cut to Black: James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

The star of the Sopranos may have passed away, but his legacy lives on.

The star of the Sopranos may have passed away, but his legacy lives on.

Photo: Mary Evans/Everett Collection | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Is there a more iconic television character than Tony Soprano? The overwhelming outpouring of sorrow in the wake of James Gandolfini’s sudden death suggests not. In fact, one is hard-pressed to think of any fictional American character — from film, literature, comic books, legend — as multi-dimensional as the New Jersey mob boss that Gandolfini embodied from 1999-2007. Which is pretty incredible, when you think about it. How could someone so evil, so brutal, so flawed, be so lovable at the same time? Combining Ralph Kramden’s working-class humor with Michael Corleone’s ruthlessness, Tony was like a bear: he could look cute and cuddly, but he could just as easily turn around and kill you. Hell, he nearly killed his own mother(although she arguably deserved it.)

Anyone who invited the Soprano family into their home every week, watching Tony stuff his face with “gabagool,” battle panic attacks, and steadily put on weight over the course of six seasons, wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the character had suffered a heart attack. But the fact that the man who played him did — in Rome, at the too-early age of 51 — seems shocking. By all accounts, Gandolfini was a great man, who worked hard, and loved his family. And he’s earned his spot on the Garden State’s Mount Rushmore, along with fellow icons like Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen. He was raised in an Italian-speaking household in Park Ridge, New Jersey, went to Rutgers University, drove a truck, tended bar, and managed nightclubs before turning to acting at 25. He leaves behind his wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, a baby daughter, Liliana, and a teenage son, Michael, who was with him when he died.

And while he will always be associated with Tony – after all, he won three best actor Emmys for playing the character – his career is full of memorable performances beyond the small screen, in movies like True Romance, on Broadway in plays like God of Carnage, and in documentaries, like Alive Day:Home from Iraq and Wartorn: 1861-2010, both of which Gandolfini produced for HBO.

“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that,” said Sopranos creator David Chase in a statement. “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 Deborah and Michael and Liliana 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.”

That Chase never let us in on Tony’s ultimate fate – whether he was cut down by a hit man’s bullet or lived to a ripe old age, playing with his grandkids in the garden like Vito Corleone – makes Gandolfini’s passing all the more jarring. We felt a real connection to the man, and to his most memorable character. For many fans, Sunday nights meant ordering in pizza, or cooking up a pot of spaghetti and meatballs and spending an hour with Tony, Carmela, Christopher, and Dr. Melfi. And those performances will live on. Asked what he would like God to say when he arrived at the Pearly Gates on Inside the Actor‘s Studio in 2009, Gandolfini replied, “Take over for a while, I’ll be right back.”

Rest in peace.

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