Monday 19 March 2018

Books: Bada Bing, Bada Boom - James Gandolfini's story

Book review: Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano, Dan Bischoff

The Sopranos
The Sopranos
Dan Bischoff
Gandolfini: The real life of the man who made Tony Soprano by Dan Bischoff

Paul Whitington

Last June, James Gandolfini was on holiday in Rome with his 13-year-old son when he collapsed in his hotel room and died. He was 51, and such was the Sopranos' star's standing in his native New Jersey that governor Chris Christie ordered all the state's official flags to be flown at half-mast.

This breezy tome from journalist and film writer Dan Bischoff is the first biography to be released since Gandolfini's death. Unsurprisingly, it sometimes feels rushed, and now and then descends into jargonistic journalese. But while Mr Bischoff's choppy and cheesy prose style is nothing to write home about, his book does succeed in creating a vivid portrait of the man behind Tony Soprano, a shy and almost painfully reticent individual who loved acting, but hated fame.

Born in Westwood, New Jersey on September 18, 1961, James Joseph Galdolfini was one hundred percent Italian-American. His father was born near Parma, his mother was raised in Naples, and Italian was spoken often in the Gandolfini home.

He described his father as "a real Guinea", who moved his stereo speakers outside so he could listen to Italian pop songs while he was mowing the lawn. But his son was more of an integrator, and became a popular sportsman and entertainer at his high school. He flirted with acting there, but avoiding getting involved with the college drama society while studying communications at Rutgers University.

He picked up bar and bouncing work in Manhattan in the early 1980s, and began studying method acting in his spare time. He was sure neither of himself nor his talent, and made a tentative professional debut in 1986 as an Elvis impersonator in a play called Big El's Best Friend. Bit parts in movies followed, but Gandolfini was 31 before he landed a role of any note, playing one of Stanley Kowalski's poker buddies in a Broadway production of On the Waterfront.

Tall, bulky and not conventionally handsome, Gandolfini's secret weapon was a kind of suppressed rage that simmered below the surface and leant a tense edge to every role he played. And he got his first real chance to show his talent in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino's 1993 crime drama True Romance, playing a soft-spoken mob enforcer.

Something about the authenticity and intensity of Gandolfini's performance struck a chord with critics, and his brief but telling turn was widely praised. Time and again through the '90s, he popped up and caught the eye in films like Get Shorty, The Juror and Night Falls on Manhattan. But he was mainly typecast as a hoodlum, and never given roles of sufficient weight to propel him to stardom.

As late as 1996 he was planting trees on highways to make ends meet between acting jobs, and didn't achieve financial security until The Sopranos came along.

The show that changed the face of television arrived in Gandolfini's life out of the blue. Writer David Chase had originally written the role of put-upon Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano for award-winning stage actor Anthony LaPaglia, and also considered Bruce Springsteen's guitarist and future Sopranos' cast member Steve Van Zant for the part. But as soon as he saw James Gandolfini read the lines, he knew he'd found his Tony.

Unsure as ever, Gandolfini cancelled his audition several times, and even asked Chase was he sure he'd made the right decision after he hired him. But Chase knew what he was doing, and the combination of his scripts and Gandolfini's acting produced something entirely new.

Set and filmed in deepest New Jersey, The Sopranos mixed humour, violence and absurdity with an almost Shakespearean dramatic grandeur, and Tony Soprano was the Hamlet.

A killer, ruthless enforcer and compulsive philanderer, Tony was also, in his way, a devoted family man and father who'd been pushed into the life he now led. The whole show depended on you liking him despite yourself, and only Gandolfini's intoxicating mixture of charm and menace could possibly have made that work. Lumbering but oddly graceful, and breathing through his nose like a fuming Italian bull, Gandolfini's Tony was one of the great TV characterisations, and helped begin the golden age of television drama in America.

The show shot him to international fame, and made him a multimillionaire, but he did his level best to remain a non-celebrity. When his marriage broke up in 2002, he was horrified to find himself on the front pages of the tabloids, and whenever interviewers asked him about himself rather than his work he'd laugh and shout "boring!"

But The Sopranos made him such a big star that anonymity was no longer an option. Ganfolfini once described himself as a "267-pound Woody Allen", and he worried over and meticulously prepared for each episode of The Sopranos and all his other roles. He was a kind of father figure to the rest of the cast, too, and once gave them each $33,000 of his own money to thank them for having backed him during a fractious pay dispute.

When the series ended in 2007, Gandolfini threw himself into charity work with war veterans, and proved his range and excellence as a character actor in films like Enough Said, Welcome to the Rileys and Zero Dark Thirty. He seemed to have a rich career as a movie character actor ahead of him, until his life ended so suddenly and unexpectedly in Rome.

Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano, Dan Bischoff. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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