Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini RIP

Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of James Gandolfini. He was 51.

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.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very well written, Ken. Thank you.

Strangely enough I'll always remember James Gandolfini as Winston in 'The Mexican'. While I didn't particularly enjoy that movie, I thought his performance was... heartbreaking. That's all I can say

Mac said...

Lovely tribute, Ken. I'd heard he was a top bloke off-screen and it's nice to have it confirmed. His performance as Tony Soprano was a masterpiece. How he could get you on his side, to feel for him, to want things to work out for him, despite being a murderer (and a vicious gangster) was truly extraordinary. It's good to know that, despite his phenomenal success, he managed to remain a decent guy.

Mikey Downey said...

I think I'll always remember him in True Romance, as the hitman sent by Gary Oldman to recover accidentally stolen drugs. The thinly veiled threat, menacing physical presence& portent laden eyes were a highlight in his key scene with Patricia Arquette - in a movie full of characters & actors that turned up delivered, he burned in the role. Nice to know he was a solid human being too.

Jim said...

Too many actors land a part like that of Tony Soprano and go on automatic. They end up playing the character as a cliche. A mish-mash of tics they've lifted from every actor they've ever seen play a gangster, from Cagney to Pacino. Gandolfini didn't do that. He played Tony Soprano as a human being, not as a catalog of cliched mannerisms. Wonderful, wonderful actor.

Billnyc said...

Me and my brother sat next to him at a little everyday cafe across from Tompkins Square Park in the East Village of NYC. This is in a little corner of the village where students, aspiring artists and creatives tend to roam.

It was a beautiful Saturday summer afternoon and we were sitting at small little sidewalk tables outside. He was with his son. Seeing him there gave me insight into how down to earth he remained despite his fame. Genuinely nice person.

Anonymous said...

This one hurts.

Very nice post Ken. Our prayers for his family.

The Milner Coupe (unable to log in)

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

You wanted to write for him, and so did I, and I imagine pretty much every other writer out there.

Gandolfini was definitely what I'd call a writer's actor. Gracious, understanding, professional, and apparently a humble person without the star aspect.

He'll be missed.

Brian said...

Everything I'd ever heard was he was a good man, and I'm glad you found that to be true. The Sopranos is my favorite TV show ever, and Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony was a major part of that.

While I knew David Chase would probably never do it, I always held out a little hope that the rumors of a movie would one day come true. Now I hope it never does.

Rest well, champ...you earned it.

Roseann said...

I worked on The Sopranos occasionally. And once or twice had a conversation with Jim. Lucky me. He was a gentle man.

chuckcd said...

A very sad day.
He and his talent will be missed.

Chris said...

I met him only once and had the impertinence to ask him how they staged the vomiting scene on stage in "God of Carnage." It was supposed to be a well-kept secret, but he happily told me. What a sweetheart. He is also heartbreaking in a film I'm not sure will get a wide release--"Violet and Daisy." R.I.P. Mr. Gandolfini.

Chili Palmer said...

Bear in Get Shorty. Fantastic.

Frank P. said...

Great to hear how that ruthless gangster was so normal and friendly in real life. Nice words Ken.

Malinda Hackett said...

Beautiful post Ken. I was so sad to hear about James Gandolfini's passing. I thought his portrayal of Tony Soprano was brilliant. t's always nice to hear that someone with his immense talent is also a wonderful person. May he rest in peace.

synonymicious said...

And how about the way he was playing the CIA director in Zero Dark Thirty? Didn't even spot it as him until much later. Marvelous control of his capabilities in pretty much everything he essayed.

The unexpected aspects of life...that's what I think Chase and company were getting at with the last scene of The Sopranos. One of those aspects is death, as Mr Gandolfini's passing sadly emphasizes...

ScottyB said...

That's the finest tribute I've seen for Mr. Gandolfini. In a day when we're obsessed with celebrity, we forget that celebrities are people -- and in quite a few cases, they're not all that great as people. Sure, we've lost a great actor, but even more sadly, the world has lost a kind, warm, generous human being. And the world is in pretty short supply of those as it is.

Tony Schumacher said...

Finally, tragically, now we'll know that when that screen went blank in the final episode... Tony did die.
And it makes me so very sad.

Rowan said...

It's always heartening to hear when someone who achieved such world-wide fame doesn't start phoning it in - even for a small private reading. He sounds like a great guy who took his craft seriously and himself, not so seriously. I was very saddened to learn of his death a couple days go. You're right, 51 is much too young.

Anonymous said...

Kayah

I guess I should finally watch The Sopranos huh? Never have seen any episode. I have seen his other work though and a fine actor he was, a decent human~