What a tragic loss for the world, to lose James Gandolfini. Like most news anymore, I found out on Twitter. My heart sank when I read the words and I scanned the page, waiting for it to be a mistake. How can he be gone at just 51 and with an 8-month-old baby at home? I was waiting for his next big chapter, because surely the magnificent talent we saw in The Sopranos was only the beginning.
More than just making Gandolfini a household name, The Sopranos was a huge marker of the time. An immeasurable effect on pop culture and television that changed things forever. It’s what we did on Sunday nights for years. I have great memories of Mr. Betty and I watching together and eating dinner, a shared bowl of tortellini with two forks. We enjoyed those nights so much.
When the time between seasons stretched longer and longer, we all hung in there. In a brilliantly written show filled with incredible actors, it can be argued that James Gandolfini carried the show. Tony Soprano was the show. The characters and storylines orbited around him, the sun that both attracted and burned them all.
The Sopranos was special to my family. It’s more than the New Jersey thing, although admittedly, that’s a big part of it. My sisters and I grew up at the shore, but everyone else was connected to North Jersey and regularly recognized the locations in the show. When we all got together for Thanksgiving we discussed the episodes at length, mourning those who were whacked, betting on who would go next. When my Pop-Pop started watching the episodes in non sequential order, we all started yelling at once. In his best Tony Soprano impression he answered, “So what? Each episode it’s the same fuckin’ thing. Another wise guy gets whacked each week.”
My Nana had a friend whose house was used for a scene with a coffin. When they approached her about using her house, she was so delighted she offered to get in the coffin. It never aired, but she did make it into the New York Times. My biggest Sopranos connection was with my dad. We’d catch up on the phone and I’d complain about Anthony Junior and he’d laugh at Johnny Sack.
Gandolfini remained a mystery. He was not comfortable with fame and never cashed in on the glamourous life, choosing to remain private. He was quite shy and when the paparazzi stalked him relentlessly, he became famous for giving the bird.
He credited the writers and crew whenever he was praised and never won an award without thanking them. He was humble and likable. Fans remained loyal, even when The Sopranos didn’t live up to its original brilliance. We suffered through heavy Bobby Bacala episodes and practically a whole season of Vito. The series finale will go down as the most unsatisfying in history, breaking fans hearts and angering millions. Mr. Betty and I were at a Sopranos viewing party and the laughs over wine and a big Italian meal fell away when the screen went black. I’m still mad about it.
We were left to decide whether Tony Soprano lived or died. I’ve had the conversation countless times and most chose to believe he was still alive. I always thought Tony died. I think James Gandolfini would have preferred to close the door on that chapter and that character. If he wasn’t Tony anymore, Tony was dead. But it really doesn’t matter now.
I will mourn this great actor from New Jersey, this gentle giant who lived quietly within a huge career. Rest in peace, James Gandolfini.