×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

James Gandolfini’s Unlikely Stardom, and the Role of a Lifetime

A reluctant and unlikely star, Gandolfini's role in 'The Sopranos' was one for the ages

In a different, pre-HBO world, James Gandolfini the TV star never would have happened. Fox wanted Anthony LaPaglia for the lead role when they were developing “The Sopranos,” and it’s hard to imagine a major network having gone with a guy of Gandolfini’s limited profile at the time.

SEE ALSO: James Gandolfini Dies at 51

And from that perspective, just imagine what we would have missed. The news that Gandolfini has died — of an apparent heart attack at the age of 51 — comes as a shock to the system. Having his life cut short also ensures his signature role — as the conflicted, therapy-seeking mob boss Tony Soprano — will forever be indelibly etched to him, as if there was anything that could erase the connection, in the same way Carroll O’Connor will always be Archie Bunker.

Gandolfini established some solid feature credentials both before and after “The Sopranos” (to see a much slimmed-down version rent the movie “Angie,” starring Geena Davis), and he was sensational in the stage version of “God of Carnage.” But he was the sort of actor who would have spent his career as a classic second banana, the best friend or tough guy. David Chase and HBO’s decision to make him their leading man was an audacious bet — one of those serendipitous, life-altering moments that the business rarely braves.

SEE ALSO: Hollywood Reacts to Gandolfini News on Twitter

Gandolfini brought a plethora of dimensions to the role of Tony, from a true sense of physical menace to disarming comedy, with practically every gradation in between. The program’s success earned him not only Emmy nominations, prestige and enormous wealth, but also the inevitable burden of being associated with a show whose shadow would be so difficult to escape, where everyone wanted a piece of him.

Although Gandolfini leveraged “The Sopranos” to champion causes and ventures that interested him — including the 2007 HBO special “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” in which he sensitively interviewed wounded soldiers — he did not appear to wear those demands comfortably. By the time the show came to an end, he clearly sounded eager to move on. No matter how unexpected the fame or terrific the role, like a lot of actors, sudden stardom seemed to wear on him.

Nevertheless, there are only so many TV shows, so many characters, that qualify a performer for true immortality, and Gandolfini’s association with “The Sopranos” looms larger than most.

Tony and the gang always seemed to be eating, and in those terms, the check came far too early. But when it comes to dramatic zest and a series that helped usher in the current renaissance of TV drama, Gandolfini — an unlikely and somewhat reluctant star — leaves behind a feast for the ages.

Salud.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Actor Aron Eisenberg during the Creation

    'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' Actor Aron Eisenberg Dies at 50

    “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” actor Aron Eisenberg, who played Nog in the 1990s series, died Saturday. He was 50. His character Nog, who appeared for all seven seasons, was a member of the alien race Ferengi, and joined Starfleet after a recommendation from Captain Sisko. Eisenberg returned for a guest spot on “Star Trek: [...]

  • ALL RISE -- A drama that

    TV Review: 'All Rise' Starring Simone Missick

    Finding a new way to do a legal procedural is such a difficult prospect at this point that it would be hard to blame TV for giving up entirely and just going on autopilot. “All Rise,” however, both indulges the basics of the genre and finds some refreshing ways to twist them into slightly new, [...]

  • An Emmy statue stands outside the

    Expect High Heat and Traffic for Emmys Sunday

    If you work in TV, are a fan of TV, or are in fact a TV yourself, the 71st Primetime Emmys promise to be a treat. Television’s biggest awards show takes place in Los Angeles on Sunday night, with some of Hollywood’s brightest stars set to appear as the entertainment community honors the best of [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Viacom Channels Grab 'Seinfeld' Cable Rerun

    Viacom Channels Grab 'Seinfeld' Cable Rerun Rights

    Viacom has sealed a deal with Sony Pictures Television for the cable rights to “Seinfeld” starting in October 2021. The deal comes on the heels of a blockbuster new deal between Sony and Netflix for the streaming rights to the beloved NBC sitcom that also begins in 2021. “Seinfeld” reruns have been a staple of [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Elite Season 2

    San Sebastian: Spain’s SVOD Players Debate Competition, Brand, Talent

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Executives from HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Movistar+ and “Elite” co-creator Darío Madrona took to the stage to field questions on the Global Impact of Spanish Series. Here, briefly, are five takeaways: 1.Spain First “La Casa de Papel” was watched by 34,355,956 Netflix accounts over its first seven days,  after a July 19 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content