Sunday 18 February 2018

Explosive Sopranos changed the way we see TV forever

James Gandolfini played the neurotic Mob boss Tony Soprano in 'The Sopranos', putting in a sustained performance of intoxicating menace and charm to become the linchpin of a series that transformed the landscape of television.

Over 86 episodes, originally broadcast between 1999 and 2007, 'The Sopranos' proved that popular television could match the look and feel of anything on the big screen. Moreover, it showed that audiences around the world would respond to writing of the highest quality, and that extended storylines of subtlety and nuance were not incompatible with commercial success.

Gandolfini was central to its allure. The character was seen juggling the pressures of managing both a family at home, and a wider crime family on the streets of suburban New Jersey. Buckling under the strain, he slowly revealed a rich, dark inner world to a psychotherapist.

He was born James Joseph Gandolfini on September 18, 1961, in Westwood, New Jersey. His father, a janitor also called James, was born in northern Italy, near Parma, and was married to Santa, a school dinner lady who was raised in Naples.

James Jr was educated at Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University. While there, his girlfriend died in a car accident, which spurred him on to make it as an actor.

His instinct on leaving university was not to act but to head to Manhattan and continue work as a bouncer.

After two years he plucked up the courage to accompany a friend to an acting class. The first exercise involved threading an imaginary needle. Shaking with rage, Gandolfini could not do it. Eventually he boiled over, smashing up the stage.

Marshalling that energy would become key to his success, to the extent that he would deliberately work himself into a state before a role. "If you're tired, every single thing that somebody does will piss you off. Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It works."

In 1992 he met the casting director for a Broadway revival of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Gandolfini as one of Stanley Kowalski's poker crew. The same year Sidney Lumet offered him a small part in the film 'A Stranger Among Us'.

It was the following year that he got what was to prove his big break in 'True Romance'.

He had been astonished, with his experience only of small parts, to be offered the lead in 'The Sopranos'. But David Chase knew he had found his man.

Gandolfini was six times nominated for an Emmy, winning three times. His success made him a rich man, with earnings rising to $400,000 dollars per episode, then a million. Yet he remained an unassuming figure. He did not use his extraordinary profile to claim a host of starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters, for example.

He did use his influence to produce several documentaries, however, notably 'Home from Iraq' (2007) and 'Wartorn: 1861-2010' (2010) about the impact of war on US servicemen.

He was uncomfortable with fame. "My father always said a million times: 'We're peasants,'" Gandolfini said in 2001. "It's just a little odd for me, to get that slightly different treatment sometimes. And I'm uncomfortable with it. I want nothing to do with privilege."

James Gandolfini married first in 1999 to Marcella Wudarski, with whom he had a son. He married, secondly, in 2008, Deborah Lin, who survives him with their daughter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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