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Gandolfini & Tony

Alan Sepinwall writes in The Revolution Was Televised that the role of Tony Soprano was originally conceived for Anthony LaPaglia and at various stages in the show’s initial development could have also gone to Michael Rispoli or Steven van Zandt (consider that a disaster averted). That it went to James Gandolfini came down to creator David Chase’s decision to take The Sopranos in a very distinct direction: “The show I envisioned is the show that’s got Jimmy in it. It’s a much darker show with Jimmy in it,” a characterization that, in Sepinwall’s recounting, Chase modified to “more real” to improve the salability of The Sopranos in an era when darkness was still anathema to industry executives. Thus, as Sepinwall and many others have noted, was the future of television born.

Sepinwall was among the earliest practitioners of (and probably the best at) the form now known as the recap, and his writing on The Sopranos for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger was reliably veined with insights shaped by a local’s perspective. Yet his appreciation of Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at fifty-one, is like many others in that it seems to arrive at a kind of conventional-wisdom conclusion: Gandolfini didn’t play just a mob boss, but someone with whom many in the pay-TV audience could identify—the upper-management, upper-middle-class family man with working-class roots, who was also charming, vulnerable, and cruel, which layered the role with a complexity that kept it from becoming a caricature. At least he didn’t say “mobster on Prozac,” which is about as reductive and silly as you can get. (Cathleen Kaveny wrote on The Sopranos for Commonweal in 2007, looking at the show’s treatment of such concepts as fate, moral failing, redemption, and salvation; it’s definitely worth [re]reading now.)

That no one can imagine anyone but Gandolfini playing Tony says how much he inhabited the role—another consensus opinion, maybe, but also true. Once when the show was filming in my neighborhood I watched him prepare for a scene by pacing the sidewalk, working himself up into a state of gasping agitation; the temperature was close to a hundred degrees and it looked as if he might drop right there (as it turned out, the scene did call for him to collapse after a severe panic attack). A couple of years later, after The Sopranos had ended, I saw him come out of a building trailed by a small group of attendants, one of whom complained about the cold. Gandolfini, sounding exactly like Tony, said, “I toldja you shoulda worn a [expletive] coat.” Maybe he did it for the benefit of the two or three of us there to witness the moment.

What Gandolfini definitely did was make Tony recognizable to viewers who might have had someone like him in their own families or neighborhoods. The voice, the carriage, the sentimentality (“it’s about family”), the sudden, explosive rages—even if their father or uncle or brother wasn’t a murderer, many people nonetheless saw something pretty familiar there. As a New Jersey native of Italian heritage, I suppose I saw something recognizable in Tony too, in the way he chewed up the words “Hacklebarney State Park” (site of numerous grade-school picnics) or fed himself cold-cuts in the light of the open refrigerator; friends from the midwest called after one episode desperate to know the meaning of “gabagool,” and I was able to inform them that it was capicola. It was good to be in the know.

But Tony was a murderer, and relatively few in the audience were likely to be in the know about that. Maybe it explains the portion of the viewership wagering on who’d be whacked in the next episode, or who complained when the body count wasn’t high enough (Sepinwall also addresses this in his book). Gandolfini brought Tony close, but not so close as to disturb the artifice. Even those who weren’t specifically tuning in for violence could enjoy the weekly transgression of watching someone almost like them get away with something they never could.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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The therapy sessions were something. The content didn't seem as important as the idea that a mobster would choose to be in therapy. (DeNiro did it in "Analyse this."Yet it make sense that someone so messed up would want to know why he was. Even if he directed the therapy to the place he wanted it to go. Like other killers, mobsters agree that the person deserved to be killed. Italians loved the Sopranos, as did others, yet few would invite such characters for dinner. It is fairly common as a Italian American to run into mobsters. Some of them separate their job from their other life. So much so that people who are law abiding are surprised to find out what this person really did as their is usually a legitimate job "fronting' the loan sharking or other operation. The stereotyping is a concern. Though Italians have now reached practically every pinnacle in America. The fascnation with the mob is its familiarity and its place in the fabric of many Italians. A bit of nostalgia, yearning for the good old days and downright fascination with the fast life. 

Yet these are people who lost their way and deserve zero admiration. Father lou Gigante, the brother of two mafiosa, (one was a boss of bosses) contends that the mafia is just like corporate America who will "kill" people by mercilessly firing them or depriving people from making a living. The corporate comparison is a good one and one that we should not forget. Especially those of us who idolize an unbridled free market.


I found the therapy angle most compelling. In the series, Melfi was also of Italian descent and I actually heard that for mobsters (or psychopaths), therapy actually increases their psycopathy as they learn how to mimic empathy, etc. This was touched on in one of the episodes. While Melfi was pretty good with boundaries, part of her was fascinated with the animalistic impulse of Tony while at the same time being revulsed. Watching their tête-à-têtes was the best part of the show.

As for Gandolfini, he infused that role with a perfect blend of cruelty, sensitivity, frustration, - just an all around fascinating character. A gfted actor who provided a compelling, albeit, completely amoral character and he managed to make it real!

"What Gandolfini did was make Tomey recognizable to viewers who might have had someone like him in their own families or neighborhoods."

In my all girls high school there were many Italian descent girls. One was a good friend.  Her father took us to dinner and introduced us to his friend, named the Weasel, nice man, very personable.  Years later I saw Jimmy the Weasel Fratianno, mobster, on "60 Minutes" - same guy but what a past.  I never forgot his face.


Not all Italian-Americans are at ease with mobsters.  One of my best friends, of Scicilian descent, became engaged to a man from Newark.  Her mothr had a fit, even though the man was of Polish descent.  She was terrified that he might have Mafia connections and wanted no part of him in the family.  

Not long ago I saw a conversation on TV of several mobsters daughters.  They all said their fathers were great dads. It seems to me that that just shows how humans can deceive themselves.  Their fathers weren't great fathers to their sons.  Remember The Godfather and the wife who aborted her child because she didn't want a son to be born the son and grandson of a serial murderer.  She had a (distorted) point.  

Sometimes I think that those of us who watch such "art" are more than a little guilty if we let oursellves see such monsters as "good fathers".  Yes, The Godfather was different from The Sopranos (or what I read about the Sopranos -- I didn't watch it.).  Corleone is presented as a tragic figure in the old sense -- a man with many virtues but essentially and terribly flawed.  And the deaths he caused were presented as horrible and terribly wrong.  I'm not so sure that was the message on The Soopranos.  

Very nice, Dominic, thank you. I'm not ready to mourn Gandolfini just yet, as the husband and I are just now making our way through The Sopranos for the first time. (It's sustaining us in these early weeks of life with a newborn -- if we can stay awake long enough to finish a whole episode, it's a night to remember.) So for me, for now, he's still very much alive in his work, but when it's over I'll be bereft. One thing about his performance that I keep marveling at is how funny he can be. His sure touch with the humorous moments is a big part of what makes Tony so likable and relatable for the audience, just as Tony's sense of humor is one of the things that makes Dr. Melfi fond of him in spite of herself.

I had a similar reaction to Alessandra Stanley's piece in the NYT. With so much really good TV writing in other venues, her stuff now seems superfluous as well as superficial. (Even her NYT colleague Dave Itzkoff managed to work more insight into the obituary he had to rush out after the news broke.) The angle she took, about how he could never escape the character, seemed particularly odd to me. (It's also a subject that was treated better by yet another NYT writer, Manohla Dargis.) Gandolfini might well have moved beyond Tony if he'd lived another twenty years. As it is, we remember him chiefly, or only, as Tony because he died too soon.

Of the tributes I read, Emily Nussbaum's blog post on How Tony Soprano Changed Television was my favorite. Most critics and commentators responded to the death by writing a remembrance of the character and the show, which was understandable, but she seemed particularly aware that that was what she was doing, and so she managed to really say something about Gandolfini in the process of talking about Tony. 

Why is Gandolfini being buried in NYC at St. John the Divine instead of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Surely he knew that the Catholic Church is the TRUE CHURCH.

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