James Gandolfini’s wickedly untimely death this week has me thinking about character. Of course, the whole world is talking about how this talented actor made Tony Soprano not just a TV character but a person who will live in the world’s hearts and minds indefinitely, long after Italian mobs as we know them today are extinct. Gandolfini recognized, though, that it wasn’t a one-sided success story.
I read a piece of an interview where he was asked about the most important thing in acting. His reply: “Six words: The writing, the writing, the writing.” So true here. Without that talent on both ends, the role could’ve been cliched and unappealing even to the most faithful mobster fans.
There were so many fascinating pieces of both the show and the man, but what stands out for me was something apparent in the very first episode – Tony’s fondness for animals. (Are any of you surprised this is what would move me?) When we met him, he was in his backyard admiring the ducks camped out in his pool, on the verge of a panic attack. Those ducks became a symbol throughout the show. That this man, clearly a killer, would take so much pleasure in and care so much about these ducks set the stage for the flawed man who was Tony Soprano.
After I read the news Wednesday, someone posted the video clip from the Ralphie Cifaretto murder episode. For those of you familiar with the show, Tony killed Ralphie in season four after learning he was involved with a stable fire that killed Tony’s racehorse. Tony loved that horse. And he loved her enough to kill one of his crew members in cold blood on her behalf. (Don’t watch if violence and bad language isn’t your thing.)
Twisted, sure, but it forever endeared Tony to me. Scary as it was to think about, I could identify with the dark place that sent Tony to Ralphie’s house that morning. And that’s what Gandolfini did so well. He was a master at getting uncomfortably under the skin of people who never would otherwise identify with lowlife mobsters, letting them recognize pieces of themselves. Not in every action or decision, surely. But enough that their own flaws, dark places and potential limits boiled to the surface for examining, even if it was simply that one hour every week.
Were you a Sopranos fan? What’s your favorite Tony moment?