Actor James Gandolfini at an NFL game between the New York Giants and the New York Jets in East Rutherord, N.J. on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. (Julio Cortez/AP)


The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano

By Dan Bischoff

St. Martin’s. 258 pp. $24.99

When James Gandolfini died of a heart attack in June 2013, the news came as a particularly jolting shock, in part because the actor was only 51. But the loss also felt like a gut punch because in so much of his work, including his signature role as suburban mafioso Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini exuded an air of indestructibility. That may even be why the famously ambiguous, cut-to-black ending of that HBO series still sparks so much debate seven years after it initially aired. It’s hard to believe that the force of conflicted nature that was Tony Soprano — and, by extension, Gandolfini — could suddenly cease to exist.

"James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano" by Dan Bischoff (St. Martin's/St. Martin's)

The collective cultural need to process the TV, film and stage star’s sudden death has inevitably led to the publication of “James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano,” the first Gandolfini biography, which has arrived less than a year after the man’s passing. If that timetable sounds accelerated, the contents of the book only further confirm that this was, indeed, a rush job.

Dan Bischoff, an art critic for the Star-Ledger newspaper, does the best he can with a challenging task: telling the story of someone who was notoriously reluctant to do interviews or speak publicly about personal matters. Bischoff is forced to put the Gandolfini biographical jigsaw puzzle together using the pieces he has, which include conversations with some of the New Jersey native’s co-stars, childhood acquaintances and longtime friends, some of whom insist on remaining anonymous, as well as previously published profiles of the actor. (The acknowledgments state that the book “was not written with the official cooperation of the Gandolfini family.”)

It’s obvious that Bischoff is stretching at certain points. He quotes some of the same passages from the same magazine profiles multiple times. He digresses into explorations of Italian American culture that seem slightly irrelevant. Occasionally, sentences land with a thud as he attempts to get from point A to point B. Example: In a paragraph that starts out by describing the “regrets, well-wishes and sorrow” that followed Gandolfini’s death, Bischoff tactlessly adds,“Slowly, the realization sunk in that this fade-out meant something else — there would be no Sopranos movie.”

For those who already know a little about Gandolfini or have read the numerous tributes and appreciations published in the wake of his death, many of the details in this book — about his habit of going AWOL from the “Sopranos” set or his quiet generosity toward charitable causes — will sound familiar. On the other hand, for those whose understanding of Gandolfini is based solely on watching him scrap with Edie Falco on “The Sopranos” or gently fall in love with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the indie romance “Enough Said” (2013), Bischoff’s biography may pull together the core narrative of the actor’s life in a way they find edifying. If nothing else, this book is certainly an aggregational time-saver, a way to understand a little more about the Emmy winner’s past without having to dig through extensive Google searches or back issues of GQ.

But no matter how many articles or conversations with associates it cites, “James Gandolfini” ultimately can’t demystify what motivated the actor, nor what made him often seem insecure about his talent yet confident enough to inhabit the body of the most influential anti-hero in the modern age of television. Those are things that, sadly, no book will ever be able to explain, because the man with the answers is no longer here to tell us.

Chaney is a pop culture writer who contributes frequently to
The Washington Post.