James Gandolfini

When my son asked me if I liked Pussy, I was taken aback. It is not the sort of thing one expects from an eight year old. My wife and I each looked at one another. He then moved on to explain that he thought Big Pussy Bonpensiero was one of the better characters in The Sopranos. Initially of the view that he was yanking my chain, I realised he was not on a wind up. I suppressed a smile and told him that Big Pussy was a strange character who had let down his buddies and in that sense some people would not like him, paradoxically seeing him as something of a dick. By that point his focus had drifted back to his computer game so I was spared the hundred questions that he wants answers to when his interest is stirred.

Occasionally, he will watch The Sopranos if I am viewing it. I was a late convert to the show. An old friend had long urged me to watch it, claiming it was the best thing since the last best thing since whatever. From childhood, motivated by the television series Vendetta with its characters Danny Scipio and Angelo James – surprising what we can remember from over four decades ago considering that what was on this morning’s breakfast plate has disappeared without trace from the memory vault – I had an interest in the discourse around the mafia and had raced through The Godfather by Mario Puzo when I was 14 or 15. But I always treated it as a serious subject whereas The Sopranos seemed to inject humour into a home not its own.

Although a late starter, still only in the third season, it is clear that James Gandolfini, who died in Rome earlier this year, really held this series together. Such was the stature of the man that when he died the New Jersey governor instructed state flags to fly at half mast. A voracious book reader who was widely regarded as a very intelligent actor he once said in a parody of his profession that ‘standing in public in other people's clothes, pretending to be someone else - it's a strange way for a grown man to make a living.’ It is anything but. We learn so much from films. Cinema is a great cultural attribute, something that cannot be reduced to a mere pastime.

He acted in many films but I have seen none of them. The Sopranos was enough to make me take to the character. There were the stereotypes in the show for sure but he was not one of them, and managed to convey to audiences a plausible take on mob life in its many dimensions not captured in films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, although great movies in their own right. A mob boss prone to panic attacks, black outs and who regularly takes to the psychiatrist’s chair from where he spills it all out. A risky enough venture in a world of paranoia guided by the ethic ‘why take a chance?’ Tony Soprano was not the sort of character to be found in biographies of Sam Giancana or Lucky Luciano.

Former partner Lora Somoza claimed that an ‘unrelenting celebrity circus’ led to him seeking solace in drugs and alcohol which in turn did nothing for his health or the longevity of his life.

When I was with him it was at the height of his Sopranos fame. We were living in New York. He was an extremely private man who found fame very difficult to deal with ... he never thought he was as good as he was. He got accolade after accolade but he remained insecure. He didn’t believe the bullshit.

I look forward to continuing to the end of The Sopranos series but there is a huge vacuum that simply cannot be filled. The cigar smoking hulking figure clad in a bathrobe as he lounged around the house thinking murder and mayhem will be centre stage as a substantive presence but in my mind’s eye ‘Big Tony’ will be more spectral than real.


  1. Great show... One of my favourites! Always thought if I were a mob boss I'd be more like your man John from New York - never liked the way Tony treated his wife, always thought it very unbecoming and a sign of his weakness. Laughed my head off at the interlude to this post, 'do you like pussy'... Still splitting my sides here while writing! Pussy was a piece of shit and got what he deserved. There was a human side to him yeah but he knew the rules, couldn't take what was coming to him so others should pay the price? Fuck you! Sleeping with ten fishes... Where he belongs

  2. I got the Sopranos collection years ago. Was a great show. Recently got into an Irish mafia show set in Dublin called Love/Hate. Very realistic. On RTE 1.

  3. My younger brother bought the Sopranos box set a couple of years ago and urged me to watch it-I became hooked after the first episode-I had avoided watching this whilst it was on TV for some reason but was glad of the chance to catch up on it-My father thought Tony was the best thing out and we laughed at the great moments-

    I will raise a glass tonight for
    James Gandolfini-one of the greats-the bright light just dimmed out to soon-

  4. One of the reason Gandolfini gave such depth to the character he played in the Sopranos is he came from the same working class background as the character he portrayed. Born in New Jersey, his mum was a dinner lady his dad a brickie, and like many working class immigrants from Italy they only spoke Italian at home. He also understood compared with the type of work his dad did acting was a walk in the park.

    He was the type of actor who came from a working class background which came to prominence in the three decades or so that followed WW2, both in the USA and UK when the working classes still had real push.

    I do not know about the USA, but in the UK today the middle classes have once again ringfenced the acting trade, although they prefer the word profession, and once again when working class characters appear on our TV and movie screens, more often than not there are portrayed by middle class actors.

    Indeed apart from a few WC actors who still hold their own like Ray Winstone, etc, these day more often than not it will be some upper middle class public school and oxbridge educated toof, even the children in the soaps are now being played by kids from those background. Thus you get kids in Corrie or Eastenders speaking with accents you would hear in the home counties but only very rarely in Tower Hamlets, or inner city Manchester.

    Two of the biggest hit US shows, Homeland and the Wire had Eton educated toffs playing the lead characters and there lack of empathy with the characters they portrayed showed, hardly surprising as a marine sergeant and a street cop from Baltimore is about as far as one can get from the gilded cage life of an Oxbridge and Eton educated toff.

    The fact both men managed to get these parts was because both had US based agents even before they left school.

    Empathy, empathy, empathy, is the watchword of great acting, you cannot learn it, you gain it from life, having it made Jim Gandolfini one of the acting greats.

  5. I remember him playing Virgil the mob enforcer in true romance 1993 great show,and for me he perfected the brutality psychopath streak there and then.

    Possibly this put him in the picture for Tony Soprano, mob boss,who knows. By all accounts his role as taken panic attacks and depression was documented in a interview I seen of him, whereby he had to take certain anti depressants to deal with everyday life, the booze and the drugs would not have helped this, but these seem to go hand and hand with private individuals and fame.

    I must admit, I have only seen a few episodes of the sopranos, apparently the real mob after seeing the show started to dress and act like the characters in the show, before that is was john gotti leading the way, they pretty much preferred the low profile approach as you do not to bring attention to yourself.

    Anyway, he died for too soon,there was a lot of shocked folk commenting on it, some even changed their social media profiles to his picture, it just goes to show you in life,sometimes for whatever reason, when your number is up, it is up.

  6. I refuse to believe that the girl who acts Kylie in Coronation Street could be anything other than working class Mick! What an actress she is

  7. I don't watch television, in fact I don't have one. I have a small monitor which is used for watching DVDs and video tapes. Perhaps television might be the subject of a debate here in future?

    When I go to visit family or friends there is usually a television on in the corner, (or on the wall these days) distracting us from a good old fashioned conversation. I would catch a few minutes of whatever happened to be on the box during my visit, and on occasion it would be an episode of the Sopranos. I was often advised that my life would be improved markedly if I had television thereby enabling me to watch the whole show. Obviously I quietly dismissed this claim, even if this drama was a good as reported how could I follow it since I'd missed several episodes, if not whole series?

    Earlier this year a close friend, a media studies teacher working in Yorkshire, sent me a pack of DVDs of movies but included in the parcel was a boxed set comprising every series of the Sopranos. The accompanying note said, 'trust me, you'll love it!' So on this recommendation I decide that I would watch it, at least I would be starting from scratch, so if it was ever going to win me, this was its best chance.
    After two episodes I was smitten!

    Well written, well researched, and really believable. I watched the whole thing (86 episodes) in one go, only stopping to answer calls of nature and chores, etc. This drama was just like one big movie!

    If I had had a television would I have watched it – probably not. I have always absolutely detested mobsters and gangsters, and the way in which these people have been glorified in movies like The Godfather. But at the end of the day all drama, no matter what genre, is about analysing the human condition and human relationships, and this one excelled in doing just this.

    I loved the characters, especially Silvio (Steve Van Zandt), probably as he didn't use violence as a first resort. At the other end of the scale, Paulie, a psychopath with an emotional age of 18 months, (you're trying to spot the barely severed umbilical cord), played by an actor who had been a career criminal, who " lived through the seventies by the skin of my nuts”.

    In one of the late series one of the characters turns informer, leading to a game of cat and mouse which has more suspense than any Hitchcock movie.

    I loved it!

  8. Michael,

    feel free to write the piece on the TV topic. It will be carried.

  9. Nice piece on one of the great actors of this generation. I think you will enjoy seasons 4, 5 and 6 as the show evolves and he confronts more complex issues involving his real family and crime family. May I also suggest watching Breaking Bad? Both central characters involve men who are not really suited to dealing with the daily drudgery of every day normal life. And the adventures that follow because of that are so fun to watch.