06/20/2013 08:35 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

James Gandolfini: As Important As Brando in the Firmament of Fictional Mafia Bosses

We now know how The Sopranos really ends -- Tony is taken out by the big capo di tutti capi in the sky. The series finale was left ambiguous but the boss of bosses up above doesn't go for unresolved endings, so ascending to heaven is New Jersey native James Gandolfini, who at 51 definitely went way before his time.

Gandolfini generally played heavies in film and television not because he was a big guy but because he was a heavyweight actor. The hugeness of his screen presence was most significantly manifested in his eight-year portrayal of Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. The Sopranos created a new paradigm for dramatic television and made HBO must-see TV. Gandolfini's work was recognized by his peers by repeatedly winning the prime-time Emmy award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series along with similar honors from the Screen Actors Guild. He also took home awards from the Golden Globes and the American Film Institute, and was nominated just about every year that he didn't win.

The Sopranos, and Gandolfini's role as Tony, was every bit as important to the oeuvre of American mafia celluloid fiction as were Marlon Brando's Don Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael in The Godfather. Aside from that Coppola epic, The Sopranos probably had the most impact on American popular culture as it relates to Italian-American gangsters. Gandolfini was brilliant as Tony Soprano precisely because he seemed to embody and then channel his New Jersey Italian ethnicity thoroughly and completely.

Millions would tune in on Sundays at 9:00 p.m. to learn sage advice on how to run a complex business organization, how to manage recalcitrant personnel, how to fend-off federal regulators (in the form of law enforcement) and how to deal with high levels of stress. It was the quintessential primer on executive management tips for the new millennium. On the home front, Tony faced all the same frustrations and temptations as most middle-aged, upper-middle class men with the caveat that he acted upon the deeply repressed impulses of so many guys living lives of quiet desperation and in so doing served as a vicarious release for male frustration and aggression no less important than that offered by professional football earlier on any given Sunday. That Tony got away with most of it was part of the allure of his character. Gandolfini brought infinite layers of complexity and nuance to a role that is most often either played overly simplistically or for laughs.

Gandolfini's untimely departure is like that of John Lennon or Jim Morrison. There would never be a Beatles reunion after December 1980 or any real performances by The Doors after July 1971 and so The Sopranos can never rise again without the anchoring presence of the Sopranos' paterfamilias.

For those of us born between 1957 and 1963, Gandolfini's tragic early death is a loud knock on our late-40s and early-50-something doors. It is a signal that our lives, no matter how accomplished, are not infinite and our youth fleeting. To Gandolfini's family, friends and colleagues, a big-hearted guy will now leave a gaping hole by his disappearance.

Even in reruns, The Sopranos is one of the best shows on TV. It always seems fresh and vibrant even if you've seen that particular episode a half dozen times. That's partly a testament to James Gandofini who gave a performance for the ages on a par with Brando. Thanks, Mr. Gandofini, for making many a Sunday night so meaningful. We wish you Godspeed and a great seat in heaven's Bada-Bing.