Don't Stop Believing

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The following post has been published on RogerEbert.com here. There are some minor editorial changes in this blog version; a link, a few passages and photographs were added. A special shout out to my neighbor, friend and Editor-in-Chief Matt Zoller Seitz who made this happen. Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

When The Sopranos went “off air” in its final episode thoughts of mortality were swirling in the air. What happened to Tony? Did they do the unthinkable/inevitable? This wasn’t a finale, it was an event that would be debated and talked about over blogs and on Facebook for months to come. David Chase’s departure from steering the ship of undoubtedly one of the most talked about, loved and important shows of the 21st century left a gaping hole that very few shows have filled. Then our minds wandered back into our day-to-day routines. The minutia. Life went on as it were.

Except it didn’t. Actors need to act. The one thing that happens 90% of the time (don’t quote me on the percentage, it's just a guess) is when an actor successfully embodies (you’re going to hear that word a lot) a role so fully and completely on television there's no turning back. They're in our homes, every week. They are that role, to the public at least. James Gandolfini was Tony Soprano. Actors graciously thank their adoring fans but they need to move forward. They need to work and Gandolfini did. He never stopped working. The consummate pro deeply committed to his craft worked constantly including a reunion of sorts with David Chase in his feature directorial debut Not Fade Away which is a bittersweet hat tip to the spirit of youth.

That said, we could never forget Tony. Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano will live with us because we knew him. He was our cousin, our uncle, maybe even our father. He was that embodiment (there’s that word again) of manhood from a different era with a different set of rules. Maybe rules, cloaked in a sociopathic mobbed up code, that in some way or another we wish still existed. As twisted and disturbing as Tony’s take on the world could be, Gandolfini’s big heart made you see things his way, without judgment.

Think about that for a minute.

Never afraid to be unflattering in the role, Gandolfini always brought it, raising what most acknowledged as a pop culture phenomenon to high art. He could be a sweet teddy bear, almost childlike in his tenderness, only to take a turn and put his shoe up your ass if you gave him any lip. He was a husband, a father and a boss. Gandolfini weaved in and out of the demanding emotional landscape of The Sopranos with great aplomb. You never got the impression that there was any dumbing down, ever. Tony knew who he was, just a “fat fucking crook from Jersey.” So did Gandolfini. It didn’t stop him from giving Tony his humanity and that’s what we all responded to.

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I just recently did a full on sprint through all six seasons on HBO GO so the show is pretty fresh in my mind. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched it in its entirety if that gives you any idea of my allegiance to the show. The one episode that haunts me especially now in wake of this loss and I’m sure I’m not the only one is “Join The Club.” SPOILER ALERT: In the episode Tony goes on an existential, Passenger-like journey as a result of being in a coma. In a dream state, he becomes another man, Kevin Finnerty to be exact, by way of a mistakenly swapped wallet. In the midst of a kind of comedy of errors considering who Tony is, this Finnerty is just a regular shmo salesman sans the heavy Jersey accent from Arizona on a business trip. The character sees a radiant light outside his hotel window coming from an airport as he tries to track down the person who has his misplaced wallet. Tony is stuck in limbo in some sort of afterlife. The episode weaves in between a parallel universe and Tony's present coma state. Gandolfini is sublime as he downshifts Tony into the guy that has to eat “egg noodles and ketchup.”

k-bigpicOn a personal note, when I lived in Lower Manhattan I saw James Gandolfini from time to time. I was going out one night with my girlfriend. We were invited by her Brooklyn childhood friend to the then hot French bistro Pastis on 9th Avenue in the West Village.  Her friend was a chef and he was preparing a spread for us like no other. When we walked in who was at the bar? It was like some rigged extra treat to see an actor I greatly admired. He wasn’t alone. Accompanying him were fellow Sopranos actors Steve Schirripa and John Ventimiglia. What really caught our eye was how he was surrounded. He was like the sun, the center of this universe. All patrons and friends drawn to his magnetism, about fifteen deep. Sure he was the star of a hot show but I got the impression he would be holding court like this anywhere, anytime, as Tony. Reality is, from what I understand, James Gandolfini was a very private person.

That wasn’t the first time I saw him though. The first time was when he emerged, larger than life from his then residential building on Greenwich Street. I looked over at my girlfriend star struck and said, “Look. It’s the big guy.”

So this is just one more goodbye from an admirer of his boundless, generous talent that made a lasting impression on all of us. In this time of mourning it’s difficult to see past the loss but in time we’ll be able to see the deep body of work he left behind. His acting brought me great joy, made me laugh, made me nostalgic and shook me to my core. My thoughts go out to him and his family.

Rest in peace, Big Guy.