James Gandolfini left us far too soon at age 51; he died of cardiac arrest on June 19 in an ambulance on the way to a Rome hospital after suffering a severe heart attack. The actor was scheduled to receive the City of Taormina award on Saturday during his stay in Italy; the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily is now preparing a tribute to the actor.
Gandolfini not only carried the iconic role of gangster and family man Tony Soprano in the HBO series "The Sopranos"--a cable show that redefined what was possible on television-- but delivered a remarkable series of movie performances as well. He was on a roll last year alone: he starred in "Sopranos" creator David Chase's 60s family drama "Not Fade Away," as a tough old-school suburban Italian-American Dad trying to hold the line with his rock-loving musician son; as authoritative Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," deciding to make the call to make the hit on Osama bin Laden; and as a gone-to-seed hitman unable to pull the trigger for gangster Brad Pitt in Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly."
Pitt co-starred with Gandolfini in another memorable scene in Tony Scott's "True Romance" (it's one of many clips below), which was the New Jersey charactor actor's breakthrough role. Pitt said of his costar: "I admire Jimmy as a ferocious actor, a gentle soul and a genuinely funny man. I am fortunate to have sat across the table from him and am gutted by this loss. I wish his family strength and some semblance of peace.”
One of my favorite roles is Gandolfini's heartbreaking performance as a sad man estranged in his marriage to agoraphobic Melissa Leo in "Welcome to the Rileys," who meets and tries to rescue a New Orleans young stripper played by Kristen Stewart. The trio try to navigate a way out of their trapped lives.
What Gandolfini had was the actor's gift of emotional transparency, plus the ability to be strong and weak, dangerous and vulnerable, handsome and ugly, but always compelling and charismatic, whether he was a killer, father or lover.
David Chase's statement on Gandolfini:
“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For Deborah and Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain.”
We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. He was special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us.
"We lost a giant today. I am utterly heartbroken."
“If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in GOD OF CARNAGE, we played 320 performances together. He didn't miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.”
I am shocked and devastated by Jim's passing. He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words. I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague. My heart goes out to his family. As those of us in his pretend one hold on to the memories of our intense and beautiful time together. The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I've ever known.
Jimmy treated us all like family with a generosity, loyalty and compassion that is rare in this world.. Working with him was a pleasure and a privilege. I will be forever grateful having had a friend the likes of Jimmy..
Tony Soprano — and the 2007 finale of “The Sopranos,” which cut to black before viewers could learn what plans a mysterious restaurant patron had for Tony as he enjoyed a relaxing meal with his wife and children — would continue to follow Mr. Gandolfini throughout his career.
He went on to play a series of tough guys and heavies, including an angry Brooklyn parent in the Broadway drama “God of Carnage,” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009; the director of the C.I.A. in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and a hit man in the 2012 crime thriller “Killing Them Softly.”
Without ever stooping to wink at the viewer, Gandolfini had a way of signaling precisely what you were in for when he turned up onscreen. Like an unusually rough-edged quality seal, his mere appearance in a supporting or throwaway role let you know that, for the duration of his performance, you were in for a good time, or at least a few caustically tossed-off lines. Sometimes that was all he needed...
Gandolfini played shlubby but imposing working stiffs who had generally seen better days: politicians (“All the King’s Men,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″), military/government heavies (“In the Loop,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), detectives (“Lonely Hearts”) and, well before “The Sopranos,” more than his fair share of crooks (“True Romance,” “Get Shorty,” “The Mexican”). It almost didn’t matter which side of the law he was operating on; cops or crooks, his characters always seemed to be trudging their way through the same irredeemably rotten system.
It was always a little bit of a shock, in the "Sopranos" years, to see the actor as himself, to find him relieved of Tony's spiritual heaviness, the Dorian Gray crust of sins he wore just beneath the skin when he played the character. With Tony Soprano, he emphasized mass and force, but like many big men -- like, Oliver Hardy, say, whom he could have played with aplomb -- Gandolfini was light on his feet, graceful and elegant in spite of his size. It's instructive to watch him in the first episodes of "The Sopranos'" sixth season, when, in a coma, he dreamed himself an "ordinary person," or as the sensitive gay hit man he plays in "The Mexican," or lip-syncing Engelbert Humperdinck in John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes," or as the fond, if demanding father in "Not Fade Away," the film that reunited him with David Chase.
Being in the Sopranos then, is a lot like watching The Sopranos: once you’ve loved James Gandolfini, there’s no getting out. More than half a decade after the show’s final episode, you’ll start watching old Sopranos episodes on HBO and be late to dinner because you can’t not finish them. You’ll see movies you otherwise would not have because the sheer presence of Gandolfini will have convinced you to do so. Where he is, you are. What he does, you pay attention. Gandolfini was the boss, and we are so privileged to have been his button-men.