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.
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.
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.