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Richard Roeper Blog

Recalling the genius of James Gandolfini

It’s impossible to imagine any list of the 10 most memorable TV characters of all time that wouldn’t include Tony Soprano.

James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in Italy at the age of 51, was a versatile actor who delivered outstanding character work in films such as “True Romance,” “Get Shorty” and “The Last Castle.” He delivered a crackling performance as Leon Panetta in a few key scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He was goofy and funny as a casino boss in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

But of course Gandolfini was best known for playing the mob boss with anxiety issues in “The Sopranos,” which ran on HBO from 1999-2007, kicking off a second Golden Era of television that continues to this day.

When we talk about how some TV series are better than 90 percent of mainstream movies, that talk started with “The Sopranos.” When we talk about how some modern TV characters are as memorable as any Oscar-winning film role, that talk often begins with Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano.

Hard to believe Gandolfini was just 37 when “The Sopranos” debuted. The character of Tony Soprano arrived onscreen as a fully formed, rich and complex character who seemed to have lived for a very long time before we were introduced to him.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Here was a man who was ruthless. Cruel. Brutal. Casually unfaithful to his wife. Capable of killing with his bare hands, or ordering the hit of someone he once loved. Often unencumbered by anything resembling a conscience.

Gandolfini could play fearsome and loathsome and ferocious with the best of ’em — but he was also capable of generating tremendous sympathy for his character, whether Tony was dealing with his evil mother, who continued to taunt him long after she was dead; trying to win back the trust of his family, or displaying fierce loyalty to those who earned it. He was the most likable monster in modern fiction this side of Hannibal Lecter.

Unlike so many celebrities of his time, Gandolfini didn’t seem the least bit interested in fame or in sharing every detail of his private life. Until the stunning news of his death on Wednesday, I didn’t know he had a son from his first marriage, or that his current wife, Deborah Lin, gave birth to their baby girl just last fall. So as we mourn the loss of a great talent who gave us a TV character we’ll never forget, we send prayers and sympathy to those who lost a husband, a father, a friend.

Whenever a famous actor dies, we hear of fans who pay tribute by watching the actor in a signature role. Such was Gandolfini’s brilliance as Tony Soprano that we don’t need to rewatch a single scene of the series, because we can still instantly see him and hear his voice.

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