I love doing the column from Europe because your clock is way ahead of everyone in the States (especially L.A. — nine hours!). But I was asleep five or six hours ago when the biggest nuclear explosion to hit the movie and acting realm in many a moon — the sudden death of James Gandolfini, 51, in Rome — was first reported. I woke up at 5:30 am and saw the news…the fuck? WHAT? Okay, I wasn’t 100% surprised (and I’ve already been warned on Twitter to stay away from this line of thinking) but for me this is almost on the level of John Lennon‘s death in terms of its shock and untimeliness. I feel devastated. Thank God for Gandolfini’s brilliance in David Chase‘s The Sopranos and the way he conveyed those feelings of being trapped and haunted and terrified by that sense of being surrounded by goblins…he was our Hamlet, our Macbeth, our James Tyrone. Thank God I have all of that on Bluray to have and to hold.

For Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is (forgive the hyperbole) so epic, so much of a legendary figure in the American saga of the late 20th Century (loss, lament, corruption) and such a titanic figure in the lore of the anxious, conflicted, canoli-eating New Jersey Italian (which I know a lot about, coming from a middle-class New Jersey suburb as I do and having known a lot of defensive guineas in high school) and who was basically the guy whose face and manner and emotional undercurrents expressed so completely and profoundly what it was like to slog through the terror and frustrations and anxieties of being a flawed, besieged middle-aged parent just before 9/11 and in the five or six years that followed…Gandolfini was the whole ball of wax to me.

I knew Gandolfini so well, I felt, but I never said a word to the guy (even during that smallish Not Fade Away party we both attended last fall in the hills above Laurel Canyon) and never dared to take a photo of him. I learned a long time ago to always be careful and never cross certain lines with large New Jersey Italians. Never poke at them, show respect and never convey the kind of snide WASPy attitude that I could dispense at the drop of a hat…watch that shit, put it away, bury it.

Gandolfini knew from anger. As one who has fed at the trough of my own anger for decades, I don’t believe he ever lost that basic fuel for his Tony arias. But he was mainly a sensitive X-factor guy, I felt. Rivers of sadness and aloneness within. He spoke with such elegance (I loved his natural voice, which was deeper and more relaxed and contemplative than that crude, higher-pitched, almost whiny-assed Tony voice) and seemed so perceptive and gentle and (from what I’ve been told by friends and colleagues) so gracious and kind.

I’ll bet that if you had asked JG where he’d like to be when the end comes, he would have said northern New Jersey, New York or somewhere in Italy. I’ll bet that was one of his last thoughts apart from the standard “holy shit…really? I’m going now?” stuff. I’ll bet he said to himself, “Well, at least I’m in Italy…not a bad place to check out. Fitting, I mean.”

My two…make that three favorite Gandolfini performances apart from Mr. Soprano are (a) his hilarious turn as Lt. General George Miller in In The Loop, (b) his Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty (“How is the food in this place anyway?…and no fucking bullshit….is he there or is he not fucking there?”) and (c) the blue-collarish, henpecked husband in the original B’way stage version of God of Carnage, which I saw in ’09 or thereabouts. (Gandolfini briefly lost his place during the performance I saw and began to say a line at the wrong moment. He caught himself and moved on like a pro.) And I liked him to varying degrees in True Romance, Get Shorty, Crimson Tide, Killing Them Softly, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Mexican, The Last Castle…on and on and on.

Gandolfini’s final film will reportedly be in Animal Rescue, a crime drama costarring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and directed by Michael Roskam.

From a riff on Gandolfini’s In The Loop guy, written by MCN’s Noah Forrest:

Gandolfini is “playing an Army General who is serious about trying to stop this war at all costs and even more serious about his job. He’s a man who is put in a dicey predicament, the only man in the film who actually knows the real cost of war. And he’s reluctant to sign based on false pretenses that might involve a lot of troops being killed. But he’s also sharp as hell and quick-witted, and Gandolfini smiles just enough to bring the right amount of levity to the proceedings.

“Basically Gandolfini’s character is supposed to be the Colin Powell of the story, a good man in an untenable situation. Except in this case, he’s got a wicked and dry sense of humor. There’s a scene that Gandolfini and Peter Capaldi share, [with] so many wonderful insults thrown back and forth that I couldn’t stop myself from smiling the whole time.”

  • patches23

    Whadaya gonna do?

    Nothin’. Nothin’ you can do.

  • Jason T.

    It’s sad but not completely unexpected for the obvious reasons. Not a nuclear explosion at all. I’ll take Heath Ledger’s death as one that hit me. Senseless and no one saw it coming. So much potential wasted and not realized, wheras JG had shown his greatness in so many roles before and after SOPRANOS. He had just wowed the world wit BROKEBACK, one of the greatest perts ever and we had yet to be slated by his Joker. Utterly sad. RIP Jim.

  • Jesse Crall

    No hyperbole warning needed, Jeff. The Sopranos deserves any amount of praise thrown its way and Gandolfini was right up there with Chase in making it a monumental achievement in storytelling. They built a man who turned everything to poison relatable to an entire nation through humor, tenderness, and the crippling sadness that comes with loss and personal shortcomings. Gandolfini’s entire body followed his emotional rides through the roles of boss, patient, father, murderer, best friend and petty asshole. I don’t know if any character across television or film has been better served by its actor.

    And Not Fade Away…fuck, he was terrific and heartbreaking. Killing Them Softly, too, trading less on pathos and more power gone to seed along with the rest of the country. Seriously, Dominik wrote that character to BE his cynical vision of a doomed America and damned if Gandolfini wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • Perfect Tommy

    Apparently he also did work in another HBO series, Criminal Justice, that imdb lists as completed. The man will be missed.

    • zantetsupowaa

      One episode is complete, but THR says there were supposed to be six in total.

      • zantetsupowaa

        Why am I getting knocked down for this comment?

    • Alan Burnett

      HBO commissioned a pilot, but chose not to move forward with a series. In a sad coincidence, the actor who played the Gandolfini role in the original BBC series – Pete Postlethwaite – has also passed on.

      • Noiresque

        Postlethwaaite was great in Criminal Justice; Gandolfini was inspired casting. The original had all these modern Dickensian characters, like the lawyer with ezcema. Who was going to play the Ben Whishaw lead?

        • Alan Burnett

          Riz Ahmed, the British actor from ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Four Lions’. I’m glad there is someone posting here that’s familiar with the original series. I thought the first season was very intelligent, with fine performances from Wishaw and Postlethwaite, and was curious how co-writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian translated the format to an American model.

  • Perfect Tommy

    Oh, and thanks, Wells, for a respectful, thoughtful obit.

    • Jason T.

      Except for the part where he calls Italians “guineas.” An unnecessary epithet.

      • PatJim

        well and the part where he says he saw it coming (weight comment)

  • berg

    Romance & Cigarettes

  • filmsof dust

    Cocaine is a helluva drugs.

  • Nice obit, Jeff.

  • NephewOfAnarchy

    True Romance is now officially depressing when you realize Tony Scott, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper, Victor Argo, and now James Gandolfini are all gone.

    • Brian Bouton

      Christ, that’s true and horrible.

  • Noiresque

    Beautiful writing, Jeff.

    Much has been written of his sad eyes – they contained multitudes, as did his sudden, guileless smile. Tony Soprano had me from the moment he was joyously frolicking with those ducks.

    It’s due as much to his specific performance as the writing on The Sopranos that the dominant artistic form of American screen drama switched from movies to television in the past decade.

    I’m with Jeff on how hard this hit me – a more nuclear explosion than Ledger. And, the nuclear explosion is an emotional one. But while I could not ignore his obvious talent I wasn’t a particular fan of Heath Ledger. He was minted as a new prince of the the sexy, leading-man with method-acting-chops breed. But I was actively looking forward to 3 decades more of James Gandolfini, and the impact his stardom as a character actor is impossible to calculate. I didn’t know he was only 51 (and that he was only 38 in Season 1! Most 38 year old stars today still seem like boys). A sad, sad day.

  • filmsof dust

    One of the last pictures of him at a tattoo shop suggests he was on one hell of a bender:

    • Perfect Tommy

      A link to TMZ is never a good thing.

  • filmsof dust

    And, yes it is the height of hyperbole. John Lennon? Hamlet? Macbeth? David Chase saying he repeatedly called him Mozart? As any New Jersey Italian would say: “Get the fuck outta hea!”

    • Magga

      For a lot of people The Sopranos was the defining cultural phenomenon of the 00’s, and he helped change a medium from bullshit to the height of modern art.

      • Gordon Cameron

        So just so we’re clear, the medium that produced (among many, many others) The Twilight Zone, I Claudius, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Simpsons, Elizabeth R, and Playhouse 90 was ‘bullshit’ prior to 1999?

  • AstralWeeks666

    That is some great and sincere writing Jeff. And congrats in not pursing the weight angle, I know that you must have wanted to but it was the right idea to leave it alone.

  • Actually

    The worst part of this loss is that we had so much more to look forward to. I always imagined that Gandolfini had another great performance in him, something that would at least equal Tony Soprano in the consciousness. Sadly, we’ll never get that.

    Death sucks.

  • Brian Bouton

    This is a beautiful eulogy, Jeff, and why this site is always a treasured stop on my Internet travels.

  • Bastard in a Basket

    Awesome tribute Alan.

    “Remember the Good Times”. For all who haven’t read it, the famous analysis of the final scene (which also has a nice tribute to James.)

    “Sometimes we go around in pity for ourselves and all the while a great wind is carrying us”

    Rest in peace Jim.

  • filmsof dust

    I was hoping for a more real eulogy, Jeff. Call it like it is. Gandolfini was a cokehead who got to caught up in playing the goomba, dago, guinea, wop role and died snorting it.

  • Gil Padilla

    He was good in ‘ Killing Them Softly’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Did he have heart problems? He was younger than me. Life is short.

  • Awardsdaily

    Feel lucky to have seen him on stage in God of Carnage – one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever seen by any actor anywhere. What a genius.

  • Hollis Mulwray

    Sitting on the overstuffed coach in the McMansion “tv room” watching the History Channel with a bowl of ice cream resting on his belly. Jim you were a true artist-making us see ourselves in the person of an angry criminal sociopath. The airport bar scene with Pitt in KILLING THEM SOFTLY was phenomenal. RIP. Too soon for a father of young kids.

  • Thankyou so much for the link to the ” Inside The Actors Studio ” edition with James Gandolfini. What a great look at the actor and the man. I can’t forget his comments about how roles with violence can get to an actor. James Lipton has now done so many shows with great pros no longer with us, including Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman and Anthony Quinn. But hell, Gandolfini was only 51 and seemed to be just getting started as a stage and screen actor.

  • Terrific piece of writing, Jeff. Worthy of the man. I had the pleasure of spending time with on multiple occasions and always found him gentle, thoughtful, and generous of heart and mind. Thanks.

  • EricGilde

    My fiance worked a catering gig last year for a party where he was. He ordered a couple of drinks from her and ended up (quite unnecessarily) giving her a pretty nice tip. She thought that he was so kind and such a gentleman over the course of the night that, despite our constant worries about money, she came home and put the tip on our fridge. It’s still there.

    Great writing, Jeff.

  • Charlie_Driggs

    I for one am very much looking forward to seeing JG’s other remaining “last film”: Nicole Holofcener’s romcom-ish “Enough Said” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener and Toni Collette. Holofcener tends to bring out wonderful work in her actors. There’s been no announcement when Fox Searchlight is planning to release it… maybe Telluride or NY Film Festival?

    Hopefully other middle-aged men will see the lesson in his death and pay closer attention to their health… if not for themselves, then for their loved ones. The cheeseburger/milkshake diet just doesn’t work.

  • FrankV22

    At the risk of sounding defensive, Italians don’t really like being called guineas. Love how a few days ago you won’t actually write “fuck” in a post, but a racial slur in an obituary. No problem.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Meant to post this yesterday: great remembrance, Jeff. Well-written, well-invoked sentiment, etc. And R.I.P., of course.

    (Damn, I always wondered what it felt like to post a purely complimentary message on this site. Pretty fucking odd, as it turns out!)