You probably don’t hear it when it happens.
Bobby ‘Bacala’ Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa) in ‘Soprano Home Movies’
(Episode 78 in Season 6)
James Gandolfini’s death was a shocker. It came out of the blue. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, June 19, I was making small talk in a hotel meeting room when my eye glanced towards a large video screen on the side wall. At first, I had a hard time processing the news crawl that announced the stunning revelation that Gandolfini was dead. There were no other details at the time. Soon press outlets all over the world reported that the actor had died of cardiac arrest at 51 while vacationing in Italy with his 13-year-old son, Michael. The boy found his father collapsed on the bathroom floor of their hotel suite in Rome. All attempts to revive the actor at a nearby hospital proved futile.
For the majority of people who primarily knew Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, including much of the press, the immediate response was to link the actor’s death with that of the career-defining character he created on television. For example, the New York Post and the (New York) Daily News both trumpeted headlines of Tony’s demise. Confusing an actor with an iconic role he or she played is commonplace in the media age, especially in this instance where so many domestic and international viewers of The Sopranos had formed such a strong parasocial relationship with James Gandolfini as Tony. Subsequent accounts suggest that the actor himself often struggled with keeping things straight in his own mind as he apparently had an increasingly difficult time turning his performance off the longer the series was on the air (Martin 1-3).
We as audience members were the beneficiaries of Gandolfini’s obsessive commitment to bringing Tony alive onscreen, as were his artistic collaborators on The Sopranos. Creator, head writer, and showrunner, David Chase, admitted early to the debt he owed the actor:
“Without Jim Gandolfini, there is no Sopranos. There is no Tony Soprano. People always ask me, what do you attribute, why do people like the show so much? Why the furor? And it’s because of him. That’s what— that’s why the whole thing I think is so identifiable to so many people, because he just is so human and people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him, despite the heinous things he’s doing onscreen.”
Later in the same interview, Chase described Gandolfini as a ‘hypersensitive man’ who ‘reflects his environment in a very, very rarified way’ (Chase 2000).
Chase and Gandolfini were both born and bred in New Jersey. In his heartfelt eulogy at James Gandolfini’s funeral, David Chase recounted one seemingly insignificant anecdote that threw what they had in common into sharp relief:
Another image of you that comes to mind is very early on, we were shooting in that really hot summer in humid New Jersey, and I looked over and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair with your slacks rolled up to your knees, and black socks and black shoes, and a damp, wet handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going, ‘Well, that’s really not a cool look.’
Then I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place because I said, Wow, I haven’t seen that done since my father used to do it and my Italian uncles used to do it and my Italian grandfather used to do it. And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey—and they were stone masons, and your father, I know, worked with concrete. I don’t know what is with Italians and cement. I was so proud.
It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that, and when I say that you were my brother, this has a lot to do with that. Italian-American. Italian worker. Builder. That Jersey thing, whatever that means. The same social class. I really feel, though that I’m older than you, I always felt that we were brothers—and partly based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything that we were doing and what we were about to embark on (‘James Gandolfini Funeral’).
Chase’s sense of heritage and place as a writer and showrunner was an essential component that enabled the 86-hour serial narrative of The Sopranos to assume a patina of authenticity for audiences. Eschewing the cheap and easy stereotypes usually applied to people from the Garden State, his portrait of Northern New Jersey is more nuanced and indigenous, thus making a mostly parochial representation of local mores and folkways relatable to viewers worldwide. David Chase’s Sopranoland is the natural habitat for his imagination, where he grappled with the problems of rendering contemporary life meaningful on his own terms. The same can be said of James Gandolfini and his characterization of Tony Soprano.
A great deal has already been written about how much Chase and Gandolfini contributed to the recent renaissance in scripted television. Chase’s unconventional casting of a character actor as the lead in The Sopranos was as courageous and transformative for TV as Mike Nichols’ selection of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) was for movies more than forty years earlier. Chase and Nichols made these choices for similar reasons. They both cast actors who were thought too ethnic and unattractive to be leading men, but Chase and Nichols recognized in them the spirit of the stories they were trying to tell.
Like the conventional wisdom about New Jersey itself, the suburban sprawl of the pre-Sopranos’ Meadowlands was as uncool a place in the popular imagination as the sight of Jim Gandolfini lounging on a beach chair with his pant legs rolled up. But the love that inspired Chase and Gandolfini’s joint creation of Tony Soprano made all the difference. The deeply-personal unselfconscious specificity that was so much a part of that characterization and The Sopranos as a whole had the improbable and paradoxical effect of rendering New Jersey chic and North Jersey a fashionable place to live by the early- to mid-2000s.
Similarly, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano emerged as sui generis as a television protagonist. James Poniewozik dubbed The Sopranos the ‘Urtext of male antiheroes.’ After television viewers welcomed Tony Soprano into their homes, pill popping Gregory House, eager torturer Jack Bauer, and serial killer Dexter Morgan were more than acceptable as lead TV characters. Prime time is now an aesthetic frontier where bad as well as good qualities are part of nearly every protagonist’s makeup in that the seriously-flawed Dr. House did cure people, special agent Bauer supposedly made the world safe for democracy, and forensic analyst Morgan does mete out punishment to those who deserve it most. In contrast, Tony Soprano stands alone as the one lead television character who has no redeeming value whatsoever. At odds with TV’s other antiheroes, Tony does not mean well; he is an immoral and spiritually-bankrupt psychopath who in the final analysis is only out for himself.
So why do audiences love him? I remember watching the final episode of The Sopranos along with a reported 12 million other viewers on the evening of Sunday, June 10, 2007, and being surprised by the relief I felt afterwards that Tony was still alive, expecting that he would be killed in a hail of bullets at the end. As parts 1 and 2 of season six wound down, Chase and his writers gave viewers fewer reasons to like Tony, as he grew increasingly narcissistic and sociopathetic. If any gangster deserved his just deserts, it was Tony Soprano, so my immediate reaction to the final scene puzzled me. As I let it percolate, I realized I had identified and empathized with Gandolfini’s Tony much more than I had ever admitted to myself.
The day after the final episode premiered, David Chase famously stated that he had ‘no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there.’ He concluded, ‘anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there,’ refusing to reveal any more about the final scene. Then more than five years later during a tour to promote Not Fade Away (2012), a feature film also set in suburban New Jersey that he wrote and directed with James Gandolfini co-starring as a working-class Italian-American father, he was once again asked about the final shot of The Sopranos by yet another reporter. He finally replied: ‘To me the question is not whether Tony lived or died, and that’s all that people wanted to know . . . There was something else that I was saying that was more important . . . about the fragility of it all . . . All I wanted to do was present the idea of how short life is and how precious it is. The only way I felt I could do that was rip it away. And I think people did get it. It made them upset emotionally, but intellectually they didn’t follow it’ (Coyle).
Several critics have suggested in their remembrances of James Gandolfini that his untimely death has in some way provided a modicum of closure to that last shot of The Sopranos. My feeling is that it added poignancy but not any further resolution. Big strong Tony Soprano as played by James Gandolfini ended up being as fragile as the rest of us. We did recognize his vulnerability from the beginning, which is why he grew to mean so much to us despite his many flaws. Three years before the final episode, Chase acknowledged that ‘I do have an idea on how it’s going to end . . . the gangster movie is a long American tradition . . . It’s usually the rise and fall . . . I have always felt that while Tony’s having his rise, he’s always having his fall every day’ (Chase 2004).
The relatability of Tony Soprano was that he was at once full of life and only an arm’s length away from death throughout the entire series. His constant flirtations with mortality also had much more to do with his suburban lifestyle than it did with the dangers of being a mob boss. For example in ‘House Arrest’ (Episode 24 in Season 2) he explains to Dr. Melfi that he wasn’t even able to enjoy a slickly-made thriller like Se7en (1995) at the local multiplex. ‘Halfway through it, I’m thinking, this is bullshit. A waste of my fucking time . . . You go to Italy, you lift weights, you watch a movie. It’s all a series of distractions ‘til you die.’ The fact that Tony’s existential discontent is rooted in his overconsumptive behavior is the unspoken and largely unacknowledged condition that he shared with many members of the audience.
Television’s ‘first priority is to push a lifestyle,’ noted David Chase in a 2004 radio interview. ‘I think what they’re trying to sell is that everything’s O.K. all the time, that this is just a great nation, a wonderful society and everything’s O.K. and it’s O.K. to buy stuff’ (Chase). Set within a despoiled New Jersey landscape, The Sopranos unflinchingly portrayed an out-of-control cultural environment where characters habitually overate, watched too much TV, and spent most of their waking hours in hot pursuit of instant corporeal and material gratification. The expanding girth of Tony and his wiseguy brethren was a literal embodiment of their overconsumptive ways; and nothing they did served as a palliative to the emptiness they felt.
Unlike any television show before it, Chase and his writers held their audience (and themselves) accountable. This answerability doesn’t mean they didn’t love the characters they created. By ending with Tony glancing up towards the camera like a deer in the headlights, viewers are never allowed to distance themselves from the character they’ve felt so connected to for six-plus seasons. He doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory. Instead, audiences are left to ruminate on the inconclusiveness of Tony’s fate and their full complicity with him—warts and all—from start to finish.
The last scene of ‘Join the Club’ (Episode 67 in Season 6) is a final case in point. It too foreshadows the fragility of Tony Soprano’s life and his slow inevitable march towards death. In this example, the stand-in for Journey’s power ballad, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is another uncool pop oldie by Badfinger playing softly as muzak in the background. Once again, Tony is the viewers’ surrogate shown ‘looking out of [his] lonely room, day after day,’ as the soundtrack seamlessly mutates into Moby’s hauntingly beautiful, ‘When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die,’ as sung by Mimi Goese.
Goodbye Jim. Thanks for everything. Smash cut to black . . .
Gary R. Edgerton is Professor and Dean of the College of Communication at Butler University. His latest book, The Sopranos, was just published in March 2013 by Wayne State University Press as part of its TV Milestones series. He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.