Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey, the son of a lunch-lady and a bricklayer born in Italy. He trained under the Meisner Technique (an acting tact that uses a series of progressively complex exercises to combine improvisational skills with unique interpretations of the emotional state of a character) and landed his first major acting gig on Broadway in 1992 alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His film debut actually came before that in 1987 in a B-movie spoof called “Shock! Shock! Shock!” His breakthrough role was his portrayal of Virgil the hitman in the Tony Scott classic “True Romance.”
1995 was a big year for the big man. He had supporting roles in two great films. He co-starred alongside John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, and Delroy Lindo in the comedy-thriller “Get Shorty” which suggested that there wasn’t much difference between the mob and Hollywood. Gandolfini also had a turn in “Crimson Tide” once again alongside Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, and once again under the direction of Tony Scott in a suspense-thriller about a mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine. Both are fantastic films.
Fast-forward to the post-Soprano years, and Gandolfini starred in two more wonderful films in 2012. “Zero Dark Thirty” was nominated for best picture; Kathryn Bigelow’s raw and gritty portrayal of what led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. He also starred in a film that flew under the radar called “Killing Them Softly” with Brad Pitt and Ray Liotta which was a smart, dark parallel of the end of the glory days of the mafia, juxtaposed with the end of the glory days of America.
Between those two years Gandolfini had his most famous role, portraying Tony Soprano from 1999-2007. A despicable character that murdered, bullied, and philandered and yet Gandolfini made you root for him. He made Dr. Melfi’s attempts to find that good person deep inside the persona he put up in front of his mafia buddies logical. He made you believe there’s a good person somewhere inside all of us, that everyone has soft side. That good person inside Tony Soprano was James Gandolfini. And that was his greatest skill as an actor: he gave all of his characters a real humanity, he allowed all of us to understand ourselves because he has that everyman quality, and you see a piece of yourself in him. You know there is someone better underneath. This may have never been better displayed than in “Where the Wild Things Are” when he voiced Carol and gave the monster such a sense of unbridled exuberance it made his character arc so stunning.
Gandolfini was an everyman. Famously detesting interviews and self-promotion, and taking a cab to the season-two premier of “The Sopranos” lest his friends think he’d gone Hollywood. You can read a wonderful piece by Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture.com from 6/20/13 to learn about his humility, but I can attest to it as well. When you read the litany of articles after his death detailing what a magnanimous person he was, know that they are all totally true. When I was a young waiter working for a staffing agency I was hired to serve as a private butler for a VIP sweet at a Cirque du Soleil performance at MSG. My VIP was of course Jim, as he asked me to address him. He was there with his wife with whom he was separated from and his young son. When he found out my name was Anthony – or Tony Schiano he exclaimed “Get the hell oudda hee-ya, Tony Schiano!? That’s a better name than Soprano, we shoulda used dat!” When he learned my job required me to stand attentively outside his suite awaiting him to push a button to summon me, he seemed furious. “No way” he said, “you sit right there and check out the show it’s gonna be great.” He waited until the intermission to ask for drinks and snacks. He left me a rather large tip.
It’s no wonder when he produced documentaries they focused on the lives of other people, people he saw as heroes. “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” and “Wartorn: 1861-2010” saw Gandolfini sitting behind the camera, allowing war veterans to tell their stories. You can tell he absorbed the people in these stories, he really felt for the people telling them, and that came through in his acting. He was a giant, burly mirror.
In “Enough Said” he plays an older divorcee giving the dating game one more shot. There are scenes in which he is made fun of for being fat as well as somewhat slovenly. But big James is too bighearted to play his character as a sad sap. He instead plays it as a man comfortable with who he is and willing to sacrifice to make a relationship work. He elevates what is otherwise a formulaic rom-com to an intriguing character study on coming to terms with middle age. He makes you relate. In “The Drop” he plays a small-time crook who owns a bar that serves as a place for the Russian mob to make money drops. While Tom Hardy steals the show with another phenomenal performance as usual, it’s hard to forget you’re watching Gandolfini’s swan song. He plays a man who is past his glory days, but was once a top dog, he was once respected. Again, instead of playing the character as a loser who thinks he used to be cool, he brings a real-life quality to the role that makes you wonder what you used to be, and if you’ll be as cool as him afterward. In his final scene, as he awaits his fate, you can’t help but shed a tear for the last time you’ll ever see this magician on screen. It’s as if his final act is to remind you there’s always a tomorrow until there’s no tomorrow.
In his last two roles he shows you men who you could easily dismiss, but you don’t because instead of making you feel bad for them, he makes you feel like them. Most actors go through the motions and collect their paychecks. Some (like Tom Hardy in “The Drop”) make you connect to a part of yourself you never knew was there, or imagine a part of yourself you wish was. James Gandolfini did that with ease because he truly was just another guy. He never took himself too seriously and he played his characters as broken, complicated people searching for that James Gandolfini underneath. Hopefully we all have a little of that. Thanks Jim.
Article By: Anthony Schiano