Gandolfini’s gift to television – and America

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

Story highlights

Gene Seymour: James Gandolfini helped elevate the medium of dramatic television

Without an actor of his gifts, the character of Tony Soprano might not have worked, he says

Seymour: Complex, conflicted Tony Soprano paved the way for others such as Don Draper

He says it's sad that we won't get to see Gandolfini make other dramatic breakthroughs

CNN  — 

“Now we’ll never know whether Tony Soprano got whacked or not.”

This, believe it or not, was how somebody on a social networking site greeted last night’s shocking news of James Gandolfini’s death, at 51, of a heart attack while vacationing in Europe.

The first thing you want to say to this is: Really? Six years have passed since the last episode of “The Sopranos” left the fate of its psychically damaged crime boss and suburban patriarch to speculation – and you still want closure after all this time? Is that really the first thing you thought about after someone died so young, so unexpectedly?

On the one hand, this sounds at best shallow and at worst callous. It is true, of course, that Tony Soprano, one of the great characters in American television and folklore, was indeed the role of a lifetime, for which Gandolfini was deservedly honored with multiple Emmys, unanimous acclaim and the type of reverberating legacy that is rarer than awards or praise. (It may be somewhat premature to call this immortality, but we’ll see in another 30 years or so.)

Appreciation: James Gandolfini, a pure actor

Gene Seymour

It is also true that in what turns out to have been a painfully brief time, Gandolfini had also distinguished himself in many roles on stage and screen in which his gruff, bearish demeanor proved adaptable enough to play everything from a well-heeled New York parent in the 2009 Broadway production of “God of Carnage” to the recalcitrant father of an aspiring rocker in “Not Fade Away,” last year’s movie-directorial debut of “Sopranos” creator David Chase.

He could also veer into the offbeat with surprising results, making a poignant impression while giving wounded, anxious voice to one of the beasts in Spike Jonze’s 2009 movie adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” a film I liked better than most of my fellow film critics did at the time. In last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” he made a deeper impression playing CIA director Leon Panetta than his relatively brief screen time would have suggested.

It was the resume of the consummate character actor. And yet, it’s just possible that only an actor as versatile and magnetic as Gandolfini could have rendered a character as complicated, forbidding and intimately familiar as Tony Soprano powerfully enough to have raised the bar for dramatic television.

David Chase set the table for his quirky crime series by giving his menacing main character a streak of emotional vulnerability so deep and wide that he needed psychotherapy to cope with the consequences of his actions – and the often trauma-inducing behavior of his family members.

Galdolfini left his mark on New Jersey

And for all the tough talk, squalid activities and violent reprisals endemic to his profession, Tony was also flummoxed by life as a well-heeled New Jersey businessman trying to get his daughter into a decent college, his son into a better (less illicit) line of work and his wife to accept his peccadillos and keep the household together while he tried to keep his motley troops in line and the authorities at bay.

One minute he could scare you (and his shrink) with his flashes of intense anger; the next minute he made you empathize with his obsessive fascination with the wildlife (ducks, bears, etc.) wandering into his spacious backyard. He was both a dedicated thug and a lost soul, a philandering sociopath who lugged his own unwieldy, twisted sense of propriety and honor.

It was this tension between Tony’s warring selves that, as much as any of the show’s other virtues, kept millions of viewers riveted to “The Sopranos” for six seasons. It also broadened the possibilities for new dramatic series featuring lead characters with similarly conflicted morals and sordid deeds.

In other words: Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Don Draper of “Mad Men” (created by “Sopranos” writer Matthew Weiner) or Walter White of “Breaking Bad.”

From the mouth of Tony Soprano: Best quotes

And without James Gandolfini bringing his own intelligence, charisma and intuitive graces to Tony Soprano’s portrayal, television might have been more resistant to the deeper, more complex drama that has catapulted the medium to being the main event in American popular culture. Gandolfini, known among fellow actors and others for his generosity of spirit toward others, gave all of us a gift that will keep on giving for generations.

The real regret, the awful, terrible knowledge that informed so many grief-stricken tributes online Wednesday, is not that we’ll never know what happened to Tony Soprano at that last supper. It’s that we’ll never have a chance to see all the other wonderful gifts we would have received from the man who brought him to riveting, haunting life.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.