James Gandolfini died on Wednesday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 51. That's far too young for anyone to go, and it is deeply affecting to many people, myself included, who connected with Gandolfini's characters over the years. It seems almost impossible to divorce Gandolfini from his iconic role, Tony Soprano, one which transformed television as we know it. I'm having a hard time not rattling off a glorified Sopranos word cloud -- Bada Bing! Big Pussy! Carmela! Capicola! But it's important, I think, to remember that he had quite an impressive career on both sides of The Sopranos, playing memorable characters in everything from True Romance, Crimson Tide and Get Shorty to Where the Wild Things Are, Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty.
Of course, I don't know much of anything about Gandolfini beyond those characters, but he always struck me as an actor's actor -- as the type who almost never simply cashed a check, who had to be personally invested in some way in the roles he picked and chose. Part of the reason I have that perception, I think, is because when The Sopranos ended in 2007, Gandolfini wasn't suddenly ubiquitous. He could have gone the Robert De Niro route it seemed, starring in a string of mediocre (or worse) rom coms and action flicks that would have cashed in on, and ultimately watered down, the appeal he cultivated so brilliantly on HBO.
Instead, he kind of disappeared, surfacing in odd places like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and as one of the beasts, Carol, in the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Gandolfini's surprising, almost disorienting appearances in movies post-Sopranos was, without exception, an immense value add. He had bit parts most recently in Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty and a much larger role in Not Fade Away, which I watched just last week and reunited him with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos.
Maybe I'm feeling overly sentimental a few months away from my 30th birthday and less than two weeks away from my wedding, but I think there's a life lesson to be found here, even if I'm projecting an awful lot on to an actor I didn't really know at all.
James Gandolfini reached the height of his profession, winning three Emmys and playing one of the most memorable characters in television history. And when it was all over, he showed integrity and great restraint in what he did with the rest of his career. Money and glory did not seem to mean much of anything to Gandolfini. But being great at his craft sure did.