In the endless cycling that has all but overtaken my profession, if you had anything to say about actor James Gandolfini’s death, you were supposed to write it, post it and move on within 24 hours of his passing on June 19.
As we all learn sooner or later, grief doesn’t work that way — especially when the death is sudden. One minute, you think everything’s normal; the next, you’re making arrangements and standing at the wake, kneading the skin of your clavicle as you whisper over and over, “I had no idea.”
In a moment of dark timing, I had just finished re-watching all six seasons of The Sopranos the night before my daughter called from Rhode Island to tell me that Gandolfini was gone. “Mom,” she said. “I knew you’d want to know.”
She was a teenager when the HBO series debuted in 1999. At the time, I had no interest in a violent show about mobsters. Then I found out her father was letting her watch the show whenever she stayed at his house. Her first mention of the Bada Bing! strip club triggered in me what she calls “Overdrive Connie.” If my 12-year-old daughter was watching a show about murder and strippers, then I was going to be able to quote it for discussion, scene by scene.
I was all in by the third episode. The teenage daughter of Gandolfini’s character, Tony Soprano, pushes and pulls until he finally admits in the car that, yes, some of his money has nothing to do with waste management. She flashes her I-knew-it smile, and he is every parent whose love for a child is his undoing.
I didn’t know Gandolfini, but like millions of fans, I knew him. I’m not Italian, and I never have lived in New Jersey, but I grew up in a working-class family with a father who never stopped resisting the changes he could not control in a world he once believed he could own.
An early scene, again between Tony and his daughter:
Tony: “You know, honey, that’s where I agree with you. I don’t think sex should be a punishable offense, either. But I do think talking about sex at the breakfast table is a punishable offense. So no more sex talk. OK?”
Meadow: “It’s the ’90s. Parents are supposed to discuss sex with their children.”
Tony: “Yeah, but that’s where you’re wrong. You see, out there it’s the 1990s, but in this house, it’s 1954.”
He points out the kitchen window: “1990s.”
He points to the floor: “1954. So now and forever, I don’t want to hear any more sex talk. OK?”
The only thing my dad would have changed was his favorite year, 1955, when he was the top high-school basketball scorer in the county.
Bruce Springsteen, another Jersey guy, has written hundreds of songs about those cocky boys whose dreams unravel until life spits them out beaten men. For all his toughness, all his heart-stopping cruelty, that was writer David Chase’s Tony, brought to life by Gandolfini.
Tony’s wife wanted a job; his kids refused to cower in the shadow of his rage; and his other “family” betrayed him, one made man at a time. Depression clawed at him, grabbing a piece of him here, mauling another piece there, relentlessly parsing him into smaller parts of himself. He was barrel-chested and doughy, full of himself and invisible outside of his tight circle of family and friends. By the end of the first season, Tony looked and sounded like every working stiff who drank too much with my dad at the Spot Cafe.
Gandolfini is widely quoted as saying he was surprised when he was chosen to play Tony. “I thought they’d pick a suave, good-looking Mafioso guy,” he said, “somebody a little more leading man type, basically.”
The Sopranos never would have worked if it had been hinged to that kind of guy. Some stories can be told only by people who look as though they’ve lived them. Week after week, Gandolfini played out our own biggest fear: that our best days are behind us.
“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he tells his psychiatrist. “I came too late for that, and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
There’s a lot of breaking news to write about this week. Egypt. Eliot Spitzer. The whole Texas Legislature. But grief pays no mind to all that. So here I am, still thinking about how James Gandolfini’s acting — how his art — helped us see the poetry in screwed-up lives.
I just wanted to take a moment to thank the guy — to let those he left behind know that he still matters to people like me, that he’s still on my mind.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: Isabelle Vautier via Wikimedia Commons