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James Gandolfini of 'The Sopranos:' An Appreciation

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My first reaction on hearing James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos" had died was stunned disbelief. Denial, stonewalling, shock, avoidance -- I tried all the techniques Tony Soprano used in his sessions with Dr. Melfi. With enough displays of stubbornness and willful blindness, I could make the news of Gandolfini's death go away, right?

We can't make it go away. And soon denial cratered into a wave of sadness for his family, his friends and those who knew him in his professional and personal lives. I can only imagine the shock and heartbreak they are going through Wednesday evening.

The third reaction was a dawning realization: We'll never see this man act again. I don't know if I'll ever fully accept that. For years after Kurt Cobain died, I mourned that we'd never get his "White Album," his weird side projects, the good and the bad and the brilliant that a long career produces.

Gandolfini, at 51, was older than Cobain, but the wall of disbelief is the same.

It's not just that Gandolfini was transfixing as Tony Soprano -- he was transfixing in so many different ways.

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.

All these different Tony Sopranos made sense together because they were played by Gandolfini. He made them all harmonize; he made them hang together and blend into a fascinating mixture. Gandolfini didn't come in at the end. He represented the beginning of cable's golden age. He created an iconic portrait of the American male in existential crisis, one that has yet to be topped in depth, breadth and sheer virtuosity.

Despite the fine performances of many TV actors who've followed in Gandolfini's footsteps, it's entirely possible that his performance as Tony Soprano will never be equaled. I am sure I speak for many "Sopranos" fans when I say that I'm grateful for the rich mystery and deep humanity that grounded Tony. That hangdog guy did a lot of bad things, but we were always on his side, somehow. Well, perhaps not on his side, precisely; his capacity for violence, murder and self-pity could be hard to take. Still, Tony was always fascinating, and it was impossible to look away from the big galoot, in part because Gandolfini showed us that Tony's selfishness and despair and sense of humor weren't so different from our own.

I wish I could say that I'm satisfied with that and that I don't want more, but that would be a lie. I wanted Gandolfini to be able to bring us all those colors, all those notes, all those modes again, in new combinations via a whole new array of characters. I wanted to see all the things he hadn't gotten to do as Tony. I wanted to see all the ways he could stretch himself and inhabit people who were radically different from Tony. I wanted to see him steal movies by sitting still and exuding that powerful charisma that he had, as he did in "Zero Dark Thirty."

I want more, and I can't comprehend that we won't get it.

I met Gandolfini once, at an HBO party in 2007, not long after the show had gone off the air. I didn't interview him, but a publicist introduced me to him because I wanted to talk with him about "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq," a documentary he had produced.

We spoke for a few minutes, and I told him that I'd thought highly of the documentary, which depicted the recovery of several veterans who'd been injured in Iraq. I don't remember if I told him I appreciated the fact that the documentary allowed the vets to keep their dignity, but the movie wasn't too starchy or reverential. I felt I'd gotten to see the soldiers as people, not as noble stereotypes.

I do recall telling Gandolfini that, as the daughter of a Marine, I appreciated his work with the military (several of the veterans, by the way, were at the HBO party, and the ones I chatted with all spoke highly of Gandolfini and were still in touch with him well after filming had wrapped). I said that, given the level of celebrity he had after the "Sopranos," I was impressed that he had used it for something so worthwhile and thoughtful.

At that, Gandolfini, who had been humble and friendly throughout our short conversation, gave me such a big hug that he lifted me off my feet. I am not a small person, I should add.

I thanked him, I shook his hand and I walked away. I was stunned, in the best possible way.

Tonight's news was stunning in a whole different way.

Rest in peace, James Gandolfini.

All due respect.

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