The Week in Old Entertainment: James Gandolfini Tribute
It’s a sad day for all of us who treasure the Sopranos.
At only 51 years of age, James Gandolfini has passed away, leaving behind a titan’s footprint in the sand. It’s odd to say, but even at the $1 million dollar per episode contract, James Gandolfini was undervalued. Could this independent and premium cable entertainment company, HBO, have the same stranglehold on top programming that it does today without the Sopranos? Would there be Game of Thrones on HBO? True Blood? Boardwalk Empire? Would Netflix have dipped its toes into premium content a la House of Cards without Sopranos? The entire HBO empire was built on his massive shoulders.
Take a look at the programming on HBO in the early to mid 90’s. You can see that the quality of programs on there was steadily rising with Oz starting in 1997 and Sex in the City in 1998, but nothing before those as truly groundbreaking or momentous. Did anyone really watch much of Arli$$ ? After the Sopranos, you start seeing major mini-series like Band of Brothers and Angels in America, and also true classic series like The Wire, Deadwood, Extras, and even things like Da Ali G Show. There’s a original series boom after the success of the Sopranos and I say it’s all because of James Gandolfini.
The extraordinary thing of it all is that James Gandolfini wasn’t even a likely television star. He was large, soft around the middle, and balding, but he had character. Sure, you could have done the show with someone more traditionally handsome for a leading man, but that product would not have been the Sopranos.
I was born in New Jersey. I tell people I am from there even though I spent the more formative years of my childhood in Indiana because there was no sense of identity to Indiana. It was milquetoast bland, plain denim with a white tee, points of light dotting a very flat and sparse country. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the US. It’s old. Much of the state is tied into NYC, the greatest city in the world. It has bustle. It’s okay to say this: New Jersey is where people who can’t afford to live in New York go to live and raise families. And it has an identity tied into all of that: a crowded place living in New York’s shadow. James Gandolfini was a Jersey guy. He had “the vowel” as they say, denoting his Italian heritage. He was regularly seen at Rutgers and NY Giant football games. He was big with a big smile – “brutish yet charming” is the description in his IMDB profile.
His breakout in the Sopranos came from nowhere, yet set an unprecedented standard at the same time. Look at the amazing range he was able to display: mafia boss, charming serial-cheater, man in panic, cheering dad, violent thug, Machiavellian politico, doting husband (at times), someone who was ruthless, savvy, and full of bullshit all at the same time. Tony Soprano reached all audiences because he was hard not to like. That charm brought out a strange Mafioso romanticism, but he was also the same guy who enjoyed an overstuffed bowl of ice cream while sitting on the couch watching his sports. Blue & white collared at the same time, plus a criminal!
The emotion of the television show seemed to be very real. Gandolfini once told Vanity Fair after the show had ended, “I’m still in love with Edie [Falco]. Of course, I love my wife, but I’m in love with Edie. I don’t know if I’m in love with Carmela or Edie or both. I’m in love with her.” Steve Schirippa shared that after Gandolfini’s contract holdout was resolved after season 4, James came back to the show and gave each regular cast member $33,000 and a thanks for sticking by him. He lived and breathed that character.
I probably go back and watch the series once every two years. It’s so good. It is a part of the television canon. Without the Sopranos, entertainment would be missing a very important chapter. And without Jim Gandolfini, there would be no Sopranos.