By all accounts, James Gandolfini loved being an actor and hated being a star. From the obituaries and tributes I've read, he seemed to despise the glitz and the glad-handing and the endless interviews -- but he cherished the work and the way it touched people. And as the sheer number of tributes to the late Gandolfini attest, he touched a lot of people.
I've read a lot of very moving and very thoughtful pieces about Gandolfini's life and his work, too many to compile in a single post. But here are just a few of the very best.
Badass Digest's Film Crit Hulk on why James Gandolfini matters:
"IT HITS US THAT HARD BECAUSE HE DID SEEM TRULY GOOD. BECAUSE HE WAS SO GRUFFLY CHARMING AND RELATABLE. AND BECAUSE HE WAS AN ACTOR WHO WAS COMPLETELY INGRAINED IN OUR PSYCHE. FOR THE CHARACTER OF TONY SOPRANO WAS AT ONCE COMPLETELY BELOVED, YET STILL HAD ALL THESE BROAD FACETS OF INESCAPABLE FLAWS, WHICH MEANS WE FELT LIKE WE TRULY KNEW HIM. IT SOUND RIDICULOUS, BUT HE FEELS ALMOST LIKE A FAMILY MEMBER, DOESN'T HE? AND WHEN YOU COUPLE THAT WITH THE FACT THAT HE WAS STILL YOUNG ENOUGH THAT YOU WOULD JUST NEVER, EVER THINK ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENING, THEN THE NEWS COMPLETELY CATCHES YOU OFF GUARD."
"Before 'The Sopranos,' the leads of television shows didn't choke the life out of friends, bang strippers, and snort drugs. But before James Gandolfini, I'm not sure if we, the audience, would have wanted them to. Broad and burly, with wheezing breath and a snarling lip, Gandolfini was built like a bear but somehow exuded the delicacy and vulnerability of Goldilocks. Through seven seasons, Gandolfini never wavered in his commitment to finding the human being buried inside David Chase's monstrous creation; he never softened his edges or sat a couple plays out. He never stopped challenging us. It couldn't have been an easy tracksuit to inhabit, day after day, year after year. Yet Gandolfini lumbered on, despite the obvious toll. It was a titanic performance. It had layers."
HitFix's Kristopher Tapley on Gandolfini the great character actor:
"He was outrageous and hilarious in Armando Iannucci's 2009 comedy 'In the Loop.' I secretly kept hoping for a cameo of his Lt. Gen. George Miller in Iannucci's HBO series 'Veep.' But I think he was perhaps most effectively used, ironically enough, by Spike Jonze as the voice of Carol in 2010's 'Where the Wild Things Are.' Like the actor himself, it was a larger-than-life character. But even though Gandolfini wasn't on screen, he breathed such soul into the role that it was really a next-level kind of vocal performance."
HitFix's Alan Sepinwall on how Gandolfini helped define the tone of "The Sopranos:"
"Gandolfini 'just inhabited the tone of the script,' Chase told me. 'At one time, I had said that this thing could be like a live-action 'Simpsons.' Once I saw him do it, I thought, 'No, that's not right. It can be absurdist, it can have a lot of stupid s--t in it, but it should not be a live-action 'Simpsons.''"
The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman on Gandolfini at the Television Critics Association Awards:
"'We're good, right?' he asked politely and looked desperately for an HBO publicist. They were right there as they already knew this experience would be hard for him. After the TCA awards, the custom is for everybody to hang out and have some dessert and drinks, mingle a bit. Lots of stars stick around and chat. Compared to pretty much any other event, it's not much of a media circus. Nobody gets mobbed much. There isn't even a red carpet. I walked over to Gandolfini when it was all done, told him congratulations and, looking at him, asked, 'It wasn't that bad, was it?' He laughed, looked around nervously and less than a minute later, said to a nearby HBO publicist -- almost like he was having a panic attack -- 'Get me out of here. Get me out of here, now.'"
Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan on the many different Tony Sopranos:
"There was the jokester Tony, the light-hearted big guy whose eyes were often amused and who displayed impeccable comic timing, as if that's an easy thing to deploy. There was mob boss Tony, the man who was capable of an astonishing range of brutal acts, some spontaneous, some quietly purposeful. This was a man capable of making other powerful men sit down, shut up and do his bidding just with a certain gleam in his eye. There was Tony the confused but doting father, Tony the frustrated but occasionally appreciative spouse, Tony the narcissistic liar and serial cheater, Tony the shrewd, calculating businessman. He was a man out of time, an old-fashioned New Jersey guy who thought he "came in at the end" of the good times. He was a man who, despite his many limitations, had moments of compassion for everyone from his son to his shrink to a befuddled FBI agent."
Huffington Post's Mike Ryan on the day he met James Gandolfini:
"James Gandolfini could have easily blown us off. Not only would it have been easy, it would have been reasonable. But he didn't. He was that nice of a guy. I didn't work in media at that point in my life -- there were no cameras around. There were no fringe benefits to gain from being nice to us. Truth be told, he made our months. He sent all of us home with what was a happy story, until yesterday. Until the three of us learned yesterday that the guy we all admired so much, who went out of his way to be nice to us, had passed away."
Movie Mezzanine's Alexander Huls on Gandolfini's greatness in "Where the Wild Things Are:"
"A lot of credit is given to the actor's sad eyes, but the heavy gloominess the actor brought to the role of Carol underlines that they were always only tools, not the actual source of his ability to convey sadness. 'Where the Wild Things Are' reinforces just how much Gandolfini understood these characters. With just his voice, the sadness the actor conjures in Carol feels as if it were being summoned from somewhere deep within the actor. Each melancholic inflection strums with a vibrant chord of emotion. 'Where the Wild Things Are' may not be Gandolfini's best performance, but it's one of his most poignant, and will forever stand out for me as exemplary of what I remember most about the actor."
The New Republic's Marc Tracy on losing a great actor:
"The last time I felt this way was when [Christopher] Hitchens died, a year and a half ago. I didn't know him either, but it oddly felt so sad, because I had spent so much time in the company of his writing. Similarly, I have spent so much time in the company of Gandolfini's acting in 'The Sopranos,' and I am at least as grateful. (He was not just doing his job: That role was a calling, and whatever he was paid could not possibly have been enough.) I have read actors called 'generous,' usually in reference to how their acting helps other actors look better. But the artist serves his audience, and so Gandolfini has to rank among the most generous actors in history."
The New Yorker's David Remnick on watching Gandolfini work:
"But Tony Soprano was the heart of him. While reporting an essay for the magazine called 'Is This The End of Rico?,' I went to Silvercup Studios, in Queens, where Chase shot most of the interiors for the series. (The expertly selected exteriors, in Essex County and elsewhere in north and central Jersey, had a Proustian quality for anyone who grew up whizzing by the Pulaski Skyway, the Meadowlands, Satin Dolls, Fountains of Wayne, the Lou Costello statue in Paterson, and other familiar locations.) Gandolfini was filming a scene in the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. He was in a foul mood, and, to make matters worse, Bracco was determined to use every means, including a whoopee cushion, to crack him up and destroy the scenes. As he blew take after take, Gandolfini seemed about to launch into a Soprano-level fit. But he kept at it, screaming at himself between takes to bear down, to concentrate. A rare moment on a set when the actor performs not only the role but what is required for it."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis on the "emotional textures in a deceptive face:"
"However brilliant Mr. Gandolfini's work in 'The Sopranos' the two dozen or so movies he made after 'The Sopranos' began proved there was more to him than its most ardent fans might have realized. There weren't many films that were especially memorable, but even the more negligible, like 'The Mexican' (2001), have their attractions. As he often did, he played a heavy in this one, a hit man called Leroy who, after kidnapping a woman (Julia Roberts), improbably makes you more curious about their relationship than the one she has with the boyfriend played by Brad Pitt. Whether Leroy is talking to her about the people he's killed (those, who 'have experienced love, they're a little less scared') or excavating his feelings, Mr. Gandolfini shifts the movie into a deeper, more sharply felt register."
Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield on the man who changed television:
"If we're living in a golden age of TV now -- and we are -- it's because other actors followed Gandolfini's lead, just as writers learned how much they could demand of their performers. It seems strange to remember now, but outside the HBO offices, expectations for 'The Sopranos' barely exceeded room temperature. The ads pimped it as a zany comedy. ('If one family doesn't kill him... the other will!') Yet Gandolfini provided the dramatic heft it needed to carry that first season. He didn't settle for shtick –even the really great kind of shtick, the "you should read Tomato Sauce for Your Ass!" slapstick most fans would have gladly accepted. (Thank God 'The Sopranos' only tried one Columbus Day episode.) He summed up the ba-da-bing banality of evil."
Slate's Jessica Winter on how Gandolfini changed television:
"It is one thing for an actor to be typecast; it is another for an actor to become synonymous with a character who transforms an entire medium, upending its fealty to tidy character arcs, moral score-setting, and conventional aesthetics. Even years after 'The Sopranos' had ended, Gandolfini's presence in a movie could feel like stunt casting, but it worked: Only a man with the physical and psychological heft of Tony Soprano could take on the Machiavellian spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the acrid political satire 'In the Loop,' and when Gandolfini strides into a conference room in 'Zero Dark Thirty' as Leon Panetta, he radiates exactly the oh-look-it's-really-him star power that the film's central CIA operative would have felt with her boss' boss."
Salon's Heather Havrilesky on the man who "captured the longing and melancholy of American life:"
"Even as you rewatch that final, somewhat mundane scene of the series, when Tony enters the diner, pops a few quarters in the jukebox, and waits for his family to show up for dinner, James Gandolfini's brilliance is undeniable. He occupies that last scene with the casual unease of a man who doesn't know if he's predator or prey, king or peasant, crestfallen middle-aged man or optimistic boy. With every hopeful (or anxious?) glance at the door of the diner, Gandolfini makes our hearts catch in our throats."
Slate's John Swansburg on the time Gandolfini pranked Slate:
"I'd had a couple of cocktails at that point, and a colleague and I somewhat brazenly took this exchange as an invitation to try to explain Slate to Gandolfini. You know, online magazine? Founded by Michael Kinsley? Covered the hell out of 'The Sopranos?' None of this rung a bell for Gandolfini, and he made it pretty clear he had no plans to look Slate up when he got home, either. We took a hint and dug into our salads."
Time's James Poniewozik on the greatness of Tony Soprano, who "made TV great:"
"His was an amazingly delicate performance for a big guy. Those eyes. Gandolfini could concentrate all of Tony's physicality and criminal cunning into them, as those black pellets darted about and he conceived a lie to tell Carmela, or a way out of a business bind. That a man with such a hulking physicality -- a presence that was itself essential to the character -- could convey so much through such minute gestures was like watching a giant sit and play a virtuosic Goldberg Variations on a toy piano."
Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz on Gandolfini, a great actor and a better man:
"James Gandolfini was real. He was special. You could feel it. Friends felt it. Colleagues felt it. People who talked to him for five minutes and never saw him again felt it. People who never met him in person and knew him only through his performance on 'The Sopranos' felt it. It was real. It was deep. It was true."