The death of James Gandolfini touched many like me who never knew him and yet feel as if he became part of our lives. Gandolfini, an accomplished actor, became inseparable from his greatest role, fictional mob boss Tony Soprano whose profound, yet seriously cracked persona anchored the groundbreaking HBO series that bears his name.
One of James Gandolfini's co-stars on The Sopranos, David Proval, who played the particularly vicious Richie Aprile, was once cast in an episode of The West Wing as a Rabbi making an impassioned case against the death penalty. In an interview, Proval talked about how cleansing it was to play this character whose moral world is about saving lives rather than taking them. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand said that he was unaware of this backdrop when he cast Proval on first sight and that all things being equal he would not have looked to him had he known of his work on The Sopranos.
This little snippet drives home the essence of what made The Sopranos so profound and why so many people resonated with its story and James Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano that was at its heart. The Sopranos ripped through stereotypical caricatures of bad guys and good guys managing to be both extreme and compelling at the same time as it was accessible and familiar. The world show creator David Chase provided for Gandolfini and his fellow cast was neither a morality play, nor a cynical land of anti-heroes. Instead, the Sopranos lived in a landscape in which each person needed to choose and be responsible for their actions despite the forces dragging them down and without the benefit of cookie-cutter outcomes dictating what is right and what is wrong. In other words, while larger than life, Gandolfini's world was also a reflection of real life and therefore it hit home for audiences across a wide range of backgrounds and experiences..
James Gandolfini of course was not Tony Soprano. While he managed to embody his fierce and dangerous persona, the man himself was by all accounts a gentle giant, committed to his family as well as his craft and a passionate advocate for good causes. And yet just as the fictional world of Tony Soprano ended abruptly in an inscrutable fade to black with no resolution, so has the life of such a well loved and admired person been cut short in an instant.
In a way the same lesson may be drawn from his life, his fictional persona and the way he was taken so suddenly: The story arc of our lives is not always neat and straightforward, but we always have the opportunity to try to do the right thing. Even those mired in corruption and violence can and must choose at each moment what path to take and even those who dedicate themselves to what is good and right must do so with no guarantees of what tomorrow will bring. To paraphrase one of Tony's great words of wisdom: everyday is a gift even if sometimes its just a pair of socks.
Rest in peace Mr. Gandolfini.