James Gandolfini accepts an award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2003. (Getty Images file photo )
As news spread Wednesday of the shocking and all-too-abrupt death of James Gandolfini, the lyrics of a song echoed through my head. The song is "Wrapped in My Memory," by Shawn Smith, and it's featured in "Long Term Parking," an episode from Season 5 of "The Sopranos."
Standing on that stage
Tell us what you've been feeling
Before you started to fade
You gave me something to believe in
There has never been a more captivating and divisive character than Tony Soprano in the history of TV.
Consider the hourlong dramas you binge-watch today. The conflicted protagonists of these worlds—the Don Drapers, Walter Whites and Dexter Morgans—would not exist if not for Tony Soprano. And Tony Soprano would not exist if not for the award-winning portrayal of the New Jersey mob boss by Gandolfini.
He got his big-screen break in the 1993 cult classic "True Romance." This is where I first encountered the hulking, heavy-breathing man who had such a sadness and tenderness about him. Despite Gandolfini's role as a thug grappling in a motel bathroom with Patricia Arquette, I couldn't help but be drawn to him.
While my bias is apparent, there aren't many critics of his performance as father and mob boss of the Soprano family. Gandolfini made you hate Tony when he strangled a strange man on a college visit with his daughter, then love him when he helped his nephew Christopher battle a crippling drug addiction.
Soprano ran both of his families, criminal and blood alike, through squinted eyes and a cloud of cigar smoke. "The Sopranos" is considered by some (including me) to be the greatest TV show in history, and it's Gandolfini's performance that catapults it into that upper echelon.
While it was difficult for some to shake the image of Tony once the show ended, Gandolfini recently delivered a stirring performance in "Zero Dark Thirty" and even gave fans a taste of his soulful side in the adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are."
In an industry where plenty of actors phone in performances to cash a paycheck, Gandolfini was of the rarest breed. He took on roles that challenged him as an actor and was diligent in preparing for them.
He had a reputation of being difficult to work with, especially on the set of "The Sopranos," where creator David Chase said he would give Gandolfini 20-30 pages of dialogue a night to memorize. In turn, he memorized his way to three Emmys.
Gandolfini's early death—he was only 51—will eventually be considered one of American cinema's greatest travesties.
Rest in peace, T.
John Hickey is a RedEye special contributor.
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