If you like "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad" or "The Walking Dead" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "Game of Thrones" or "Justified" or any of the other cable series that make TV still worth watching, then you ought to tip your hat to James Gandolfini today. He changed TV as much as any actor since Bill Cosby in the 1980s or Carroll O'Connor and Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s.
Sure, David Chase was the presiding genius behind "The Sopranos." But it was Gandolfini's performance as Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano that won over viewers almost immediately to this strange, hybrid thing, a cable drama series about a sad suburban dad who was also a killer. They say our favorite TV casts become our families in a way, because we spend all that time together in our living rooms. Somehow Gandolfini made Tony just as much a part of the American family as Archie Bunker and Mary Richards and Cliff Huxtable. And in making "The Sopranos" a hit for HBO, he blazed the trail for all those other shows, smart and edgy and violent and profane, just about the time that business pressures turned broadcast network TV into a landscape of witless reality contests. Of course you ought to tip your hat to him anyway. He was a terrific actor, humanizing this violent character and making us see all his contradictions in his eyes.
To be honest, I've hardly seen his other performances. He didn't work as much as many actors. The huge fame that came with "The Sopranos" was not something he appeared to enjoy. For a big, scary-looking guy, he seemed shy. I met him only once, at a circuslike HBO party at some painfully hip Hollywood hotel in 2007 or -08. He was there to promote a documentary about disabled veterans. There was Champagne and shrimp on sticks and lots of leggy model types, not to mention dramatic bursts of flame from gas rings floating on the surface of the pool. Also on hand were plenty of reporters who would have been happy to ask him flattering questions in an ego-boosting poolside scrum. But he turned his back on all that, slipped into a chair at a table of disabled vets and spent the next hour or two tossing back shots with them, deep in conversation with a multiple amputee who'd fought in Iraq. Then he slipped away.
Appetite was a big part of Tony Soprano. For food, drink, sex, money, power, and, secretly, love. Gandolfini shared at least some of that with the character. He was a big man - sometimes very big - who often looked anxious or angry. Maybe that's the profile of a guy who dies of a massive heart attack, aged only 51. He leaves behind a second wife and their toddler, among other family. I hope he was having a good time in Rome before the screen went to black.