James Gandolfini: The Soprano who was Mozart

David Chase sat toward the front, taking in the violent Monopoly game like the rest of us. But while the room was gripped by the grim and bloody brawl, the very man who helped stage the scene appeared to smile, his tanned face beaming with pleasure. He was basking in the screen brilliance of his partner in crime, James Gandolfini.

He was appreciating genius.

The event was nearly seven years ago — a D.C. media screening to preview the last half-season of creator Chase’s HBO mob masterpiece, “The Sopranos,” which would daringly fade to black the following summer of 2007. The episode was “Soprano Home Movies,” and Gandolfini was at his menacing, roused-bear best — approachably domestic one moment, homicidally rageful the next.

That actor’s tapped fury — whether ablaze or at slow boil — kept “The Sopranos” fully creatively ignited for six historic seasons. And Gandolfini’s monster mobster, Tony Soprano, helped set the stage for a parade of small-screen antiheroes, including ad man/conman Don Draper (“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, perhaps not coincidentally, was a writer on “The Sopranos”) and the men of “Breaking Bad.”

All because Chase made a brave casting choice.

Before the show’s 1999 debut, Chase — according to show lore — envisioned a family dynamic of perhaps a live-action “The Simpsons.” And the other finalist for the mob boss role was said to be good, and funny. But Gandolfini wasn’t going first for the funny; he was going for the truth, which meant he was going for the fury.

James Gandolfini was raised by parents who had strong Italian roots — they spoke Italian in the home, though not to the kids — and who lived the immigrant experience, working blue-collar jobs like bricklayer and custodian and school-cafeteria worker to make it in America. Gandolfini would later say that his folks were “screwed over” by the system.

And so the actor took on a role that by all rights should not have been relatable to a mass audience, and he made us care. He said his performance was a tribute to working-class people. Because in Tony Soprano, he burrowed in and found a character who could speak to these American times.

Gandolfini, a maestro at creating character, had found both a world-class composer in Chase, and an instrument — a Stradivarius, really — in Tony Soprano. Although Chase would see it differently.

After Gandolfini’s death on Wednesday, Chase recalled telling him: “You’re like Mozart.” Which is why Chase cast him. Once he witnessed Gandolfini’s acting genius, he no longer wanted “The Simpsons.” He wanted something darker than an amusing mafia don. He wanted “Don Giovanni.”

And so it began: The virtuosic fleshing-out of Tony Soprano, whether the Jersey boss was waxing bluntly or whacking with a blunt instrument — mangling a man or the English language. (And his malapropisms are some of TV’s most quotable ever). Gandolfini said he envisioned a character who had “no center” and “no religion,” only a code of honor, and that code had turned to excrement.

In this family man who suffered panic attacks amid a changing culture and economy, Gandolfini somehow, miraculously, made this lost-in-America murderer sympathetic.

Mozart, indeed.

Has any actor ever breathed life into an iconic TV role not only so masterfully, but so audibly? Tony Soprano was a massive tea kettle in polyester, wheezing and huffing that slow-boil fury like a symphony of pained bull-snorts. He was also all restless hands and sarcastic grins. Behind that Roman nose and beneath that menacing dented brow, Gandolfini created silent cues to the character. Chase said Gandolfini had “sad eyes,” but as Tony Soprano, those eyes could go stone-cold soulless at a moment’s notice, as the killer inside took over that hulking, lumbering body.

Ah, taking over a body: Tony Soprano surely was a monster, but he was no Frankenstein — because Gandolfini was so absolute in the role, he never let us see the stitching. How few iconic TV performances have ever been so seamless.

Just weeks ago, we lost Jean Stapleton, the broadly talented stage and screen actress who lives on among most in America as only a single historic character: Edith Bunker, the sweet, patient, put-upon wife to bigoted-but-also-sympathetic Archie in “All in the Family.” Tony Soprano was the reverse Edith: She was utterly beloved; he utterly beguiled. Gandolfini, too, was so widely talented — but you can’t fully escape the shadow of your supreme role, your acting Stradivarius.

Gore Verbinski, who directed Gandolfini as the gay hitman in “The Mexican,” likened the actor to Marlon Brando. The raw power. The fearless technique. The riveting presence. (One of Gandolfini’s big breaks, coincidentally, was on Broadway, at about age 30, in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) Verbinski was not wrong.

Gandolfini shined in “True Romance” and “Cinema Verite” and “Where the Wild Things Are” and in so many other roles. But in “The Sopranos,” he not only inhabited excellence. He also found perfection.

On TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton once asked Gandolfini what he’d like to hear God say to him at the pearly gates if heaven exists. The actor’s response: “Take over for a while — I’ll be right back.”

Gandolfini didn’t just act in the role of Tony Soprano, of course. He utterly, completely decided to take it over.

For that: Thank you.

[Fade to black]

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