I didn’t know Jimmy Gandolfini personally, but as most folks who watched The Sopranos would understand, he felt like a close friend and family member. I will call him “Jimmy” in this tribute because I would have wanted him to call me “Danny” and I sense that he was more a Jimmy than a James.
James Gandolfini, the actor, played a “complex mob boss,” as the New York Times described his iconic portrayal of Tony Soprano, but inside and out, Jimmy Gandolfini, the person, came across as a regular Jersey guy. His down-home informality was a major part of his appeal.
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, reacted yesterday to the death of James Gandolfini with high praise calling him “a genius,” but in his statement, Chase also mentioned that Jimmy “wasn’t easy sometimes.” USA Today columnist Robert Bianco noted that James Gandolfini never came across as a star, neither in interviews or on-screen, and that Jimmy was “shy and reserved with the press (witty when relaxed, brusque when pressed).”
In other words, James was a larger-than-life acting legend, but Jimmy, Jimmy was like so many of us. He was a flawed man with working-class parents. He worked hard in their honor and by all appearances he tried to make them proud. He lived his life, it seems, according to his rules, just as Tony Soprano, the television character he channeled, lived by “his code of honor.”
That, in part, is how Jimmy Gandolfini said he was drawn to play the part of Tony Soprano.
“It says a lot about a lot of people,” Jimmy said during an Inside the Actors Studio segment in 2004. “It’s a man in struggle. He doesn’t have a religion, he doesn’t believe in the government, he doesn’t believe in anything except his code of honor.”
But Jimmy didn’t stop there. In his attempt to explain how he identified with Tony Soprano, Jimmy Gandolfini metaphorically indicted American society’s lack of role models, the emptiness of consumerism, and the erosion of a citizenry’s moral code.
“And [Tony’s] code of honor is all going to shit… So he has nothing left, he’s got nothing left. And he’s looking around,” Jimmy said. “It was that searching that I think a lot of America does half the time. You can go buy things, you could do whatever, but he had no center left. And I really identified with that.”
Tony Soprano was not the only incorrigible man in James Gandolfini’s list of film and TV characters. Before The Sopranos marked him a “made man” in Hollywood, he took on supporting roles of men who abused women. For two prime examples, see Tony Scott’s True Romance written by Quentin Tarantino and She’s So Lovely written by John Cassavetes and directed by Nick Cassavetes.
These scenes of violence against women made Jimmy pensive during his Actors Studio interview with James Lipton. “I find [the scenes] difficult—they take a bit of a toll,” he said. “You go home feeling rotten, just absolutely rotten. It takes a while … for me.”
And with this reflection of a man who artfully lived in the skin of his characters and took his creative work home with him, Jimmy leaves us with a mirror. We wonder why we too as writers, readers and cultural observers are drawn to characters whose lives are filled with violence.
We wonder how we can forgive a person like Tony Soprano for all of his faults, sins, and abhorrent crimes. While Tony may be a figment of a brilliant writer’s imagination, James Gandolfini’s embodiment of the man helped stir emotions in us that are as real as any daily connection we make with our loved ones.
It’s often pointed out by Sopranos fans that the HBO series drama heightened to a feverish pitch in the show’s fifth aired episode when Tony took a short break from touring college campuses with his daughter, Meadow, to commit his first murder. Depending on who you ask, this is when the plot took a turn for the better or worse. For the better, because Tony’s killing of a mob rat showed just how nuanced a character he was and opened the floodgates of all that was to come. For the worse, because Tony’s coldblooded act depicted just how deeply dangerous and deranged this man was. Could America truly get behind such a bloodthirsty antihero? James Gandolfini saw to it that they would.
The show’s appetite for violence brought pause to some viewers and outright lost others, but what made flocks of people return each week was not the mayhem but the cast’s idiosyncrasies and chemistry, and a cohesive storyline balanced by wise cracks, intelligent satire and surprising developments.
It will be interesting to see how the series ages, but everything at the time about The Sopranos was consistently topnotch: the writing, the acting, the directing, the music choices. But what separated it from the pack was how it made Americans squirm in their seats, and how it scrutinized our own behaviors and spawned questions about an underworld of criminals who made us uncomfortable because other than all the killing, they seemed so normal.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather represented a subclass of Italians that required readers and film watchers to shrug off stereotypes and enjoy the intimacy of a world few experience. David Chase’s The Sopranos helped elevate the discussion around the water cooler. It didn’t matter if it offended the thin-skinned. What mattered was it removed the bar for television drama and drew the line for what we all could stomach as a society. How far could Tony go without losing our support? If this were the week he blew his top and hit his wife, Carmela, how many viewers would finally turn their backs on him?
Sure, Tony is forgiven when he kills a rat and FBI informant like his friend, Pussy, but many of us are horrified when Tony wraps his hands around the throat of his mistress after she threatens to make their affair known to Carmela. If Tony is capable of killing a brokenhearted woman, is this when we finally turn our back on him and stop caring? Stop watching forever?
What made James Gandolfini so good at keeping the tattered threads of Tony Soprano’s twisted morality—and his fans—from splitting for good?
How did James Gandolfini generate and then tamper all that rage so that we could still see the good in Tony Soprano’s misbegotten soul?
It was Jimmy. When we needed him most, Jimmy turned up in Tony’s eyes.
All may not be right with this world, but at least we know in every Tony Soprano, there is a Jimmy lurking in there, somewhere.
James Gandolfini may have left this world a lot sooner than we all had wished, but when we most needed a quiet, dignified man—a strong, silent type like Gary Cooper, Tony Soprano’s idol—when we thought civilization had lost all hope and man was doomed to repeat his ancestor’s sins by battering women and neglecting his children, James Gandolfini stepped aside and let Jimmy take over.
Just before the screen went black in the series finale, do you know what really happened? Jimmy turned up in Tony’s eyes. And the modern American family has never been quite the same.