Thursday, June 20, 2013
How many actors could play a vicious gangster who had a conscience and you actually believed it? How many actors could command any scene or any stage? How many actors could play loveable as well as hateful? And how many actors could play comedy as well as heavy drama?
And despite all that James Gandolfini landed the part of Tony Soprano.
If THE SOPRANOS were on a major broadcast network they would have insisted on someone better looking, someone with a bigger name, preferably someone who had already been in five series. Thank God for great timing, HBO, and David Chase. It’s impossible to think of anyone else as Tony Soprano and impossible to think of THE SOPRANOS succeeding without James Gandolfini.
I had the pleasure of meeting him only once. Just two months ago.
I agreed to help a writer friend with his screenplay reading. James graciously agreed to play the lead. I read the stage directions. We wound up having dinner together. Very informal, in the writer’s apartment. You’d never know he was a major star. He was the most regular guy you’ve ever seen. And trust me, most stars, in any situation, let you know they’re stars. Not James. He was the guy who sat next to you at a ballgame. He was the neighbor who always invited you over for a barbeque even though you had screaming kids.
What impressed me so much at the reading was (a) he didn’t smack me for jumping one of his lines, and (b) he clearly had prepared for the exercise. Lots of times actors will give you cold readings. It was enough of a favor that they even agreed to show up. This was not a reading to get backers or a studio involved. It was merely a tool to help the writer polish his spec screenplay. And yet James gave it everything he had, adding subtlety, shading, and power. After it was over he made himself available to the author for discussion and suggestions. He was so helpful. The man was a total mensch.
I thought to myself – someday I want to write for him. Sadly, that will now never be. 51 is way too young. I'm sure he knocked around for years getting bit character parts. And now, when he finally made it, when he proved all the "suits" wrong by becoming a star without looking like Leonardo DiCaprio, he was taken from us.
When THE SOPRANOS ended there was a huge uproar over the final shot. The camera just cut to black. Was Tony about to be killed? Or did he live? I found that ending very unnerving. And now, I wish that on James Gandolfini’s final day, in Rome, the screen went black, so that at least there was the chance that we wouldn’t lose this wonderful man and extraordinary talent. If only life could be like THE SOPRANOS.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM