James Gandolfini Forever Changed the Fabric of the American Gangster Story

Flawed, blood-lusty and deeply layered, Gandolfini used Tony Soprano to peel away at humanity's raw and violent nature. 

By: Roseanne Montillo, ISDA Contributor

On Jan. 10, 1999, a new show debuted on HBO. The Sopranos begins with what would become the iconic song, “Woke Up This Morning,” written, remixed and performed by the British band, Alabama, as the main protagonist, Tony Soprano, is seen driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and passing through the tollbooth toward the New Jersey Turnpike.

As he drives, viewers are treated to a number of landmarks depicting Newark, Jersey City, and other areas of New Jersey as he leisurely makes his way down the highway, until he pulls into the driveway of his suburban home. There had been some buzz about the program prior to its premiere, so viewers knew that this was a mob show; but unlike other dramas dealing with criminals, we immediately learn that it will not take place in New York, as typically they tend to do, but in New Jersey, a seemingly unlikely place.

American viewers have always had a fascination and fondness with mobster-related movies and programs. Think of The Godfather, Goodfellas, The UntouchablesPublic Enemy, and countless others that have come on the big and small screen, which have made use of the stereotypical Italian American Mafia organization to propel the story forward. There is something dangerous, and also tantalizing in peeking into the lives of such characters the world deems dangerous, corrupted, psychotic and unredeemable. The same was expected from The Sopranos.

But the show promised to deliver something different; particularly with the depiction of its main character. Immediately, Tony Soprano was portrayed as an unlikely mobster, a man dealing with the grueling demands of his crime family and his immediate family, his wife Carmela, daughter, Meadow, and son, A.J., and whose observations and dilemmas lead to issues of depression and panic attacks.

Viewers first become aware of these problems during A.J.’s birthday party, while Tony is trying to cook some sausage.  While trying to perform his fatherly duties, he feels a panic attack coming on, and much like he did when he was a young boy, he loses consciousness, causing him to drop a bottle of lighter fluid in the hot coals, which in turn causes an explosion. The episode sends him to the hospital, as he fears the worst, where, after a battery of tests, which reveal nothing physical going on, the doctors point out that his symptoms might be psychological and refer him to a psychiatrist, Doctor Jennifer Melfi.

Although Tony is aghast at the proposition, he eventually relents and agrees to go into therapy. The relationship that develops between Tony and Doctor Melfi is probably the most revealing and honest one Tony has ever had, and continues to have, including the one with Carmela. From a technical standpoint, this also helps viewers gain some insight into Tony Soprano’s inner life and turmoil.

However, the success of the character and of the show would not have been possible if not for the talent of the actor portraying him, James Gandolfini, an Italian American performer not too many people had heard of prior to The Sopranos. Gandolfini was born James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. on Sept. 18, 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey, to Italian American parents. His mother, Santa, was born in the United States but grew up in Naples; upon returning to the States, she was employed as a food service worker in a high school. His father, James Joseph Gandolfini Sr., was born in Borgo Val di Taro, not far from the city of Parma, in the region of Emilia Romagna. Trained as a brick layer and stone mason, he later worked as the Paramus Catholic High School as a custodian. A survivor of World War II, James Sr. had been awarded a Purple Heart, a fact that allowed James Jr. to feel a deep affinity later in his life to those army veterans wounded in conflict.

James Gandolfini called Park Ridge, New Jersey home, graduating from Park Ridge High School in 1979. As a student, he was an avid basketball player and also a member of the drama club. He later attended Rutgers University, where he studied Communications and graduated in 1982.

He was not someone who immediately fell into acting. Prior to that, he worked as a bouncer, a bartender and a club manager in New York City. However, one day, just by chance, he followed a friend to an acting class and was immediately taken by the craft, which he decided to study. He ended up attending the Gately Poole Conservatory for two years, studying under the direction of Kathryn Gately.

While he appeared on the stage several times, including in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, and On The Waterfront, it was his film role as Virgil, in the 1993 movie True Romance that allowed him to be viewed as a serious film actor. In it, he played a vicious gangster whose performance had been inspired, he later told reporters, by a man he had known in childhood who had worked as a hitman.

Gandolfini didn’t know it at the time, but in his role in True Romance, he had caught the eye of a woman who was to change the course of his career. Susan Fitzgerald had been watching the movie and become a fan of his, particularly of Gandolfini’s understated acting style. She worked as a casting director, and was adept at finding talent. When she was later given the task of finding appropriate actors to fill the roles for The Sopranos, she immediately thought of him as the perfect man to play Tony Soprano. She believed he had the depth of character to fill such a massive personality that was to be Tony; she arranged a meeting with David Chase.

Chase, who created the show, needed someone particular to play Tony Soprano. Having been roughly inspired by Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palermo, a New Jersey mobster and boss of the DeCavalcante crime family, and partly by Chase’s own family members, Tony would not be your typical, stereotypical seen-before mobster. On the outside, it would be easy to dismiss Tony as simply a classically violent, vicious, blood-lusty sociopath. But Chase, an Italian American himself, had written the character in such a way that as the seasons developed Tony would reveal his struggles not only within his criminal enterprise, but within himself; his desires to maintain a certain amount of semblance of normality within a world that was anything but.

And that would make all the difference in the world between this character and the mobsters of yesteryears; this would be why, in a roundabout way, viewers would come to like Tony Soprano; and this would be why James Gandolfini would turn out to be the best actor to play him.

Chris Lee, from the Los Angeles Times, described Tony Soprano as the “unlikeliest of sex symbols,” and of James Gandolfini’s performance had this to say: “He forever rejiggered television’s fascination with morally challenged . . . and less-than-physically-perfect protagonists.”

The Sopranos has been hailed as one of the greatest television shows of all time, winning numerous Peabody Awards, Primetime Emmy Awards, and Golden Globe Awards. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America called it the best-written tv series of all time, TV Guide quickly following suit by ranking it the best television series of all time. It has spawned music albums, books and even a video game. Peter Biskind, of Vanity Fair, has called the show “The richest achievement in the history of television,” while the New York Times said, “The Sopranos just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.”

Nonetheless, with all the accolades it received, it would be fair to say that it has also garnered a good share of criticism, mainly as continuing to perpetuate the stereotypes about Italian Americans, including their values, family upbringings, and culture. Professor William Roberts, who has authored several books on Italian history, had this to say when the show first premiered: “The show’s inflated image of organized crime casts a shadow over both the state and its Italian American community.” He was interviewed again toward the end of The Sopranos run, and was yet to change his mind: “The show helped to perpetuate one of the more problematic and stereotypical images of Italian Americans,” he said.  “Both Italian and Italian American culture have much more diverse and interesting heritages than the American public generally realizes.”

He is, of course, partially correct in his observations. There is more to Italians and Italian Americans than the Mafia. But David Chase will not apologize for creating The Sopranos; he had no intention of depicting all Italian Americans, he told reporters; but simply a small subculture who happened to be involved in criminal activities. And it seems that the public’s hunger for The Sopranos continues. Just last year, in 2018, New Line Cinema announced that there would be a prequel film to the show set in the 1960s titled The Many Saints of Newark, written by David Chase and Lawrence Kinner, and directed by Alan Taylor.

It seems that we haven’t seen the last of The Sopranos. And if indications are correct, the public can’t wait.


James Gandolfini (Born: Sept. 18, 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey; Died: June 19, 2013 in Rome, Italy)

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