‘The Sopranos’: 4 Telling Tales About The Late Great James Gandolfini
Before Walter White got people rooting for his hat-wearing alter ego, and long before Ozark’s Marty Byrd garnered everyone’s sympathy by being married to Wendy Byrd, there was Tony Soprano — the OG antihero of American television dramas. And while we probably can’t say that Tony would never have become as iconic if it wasn’t for actor James Gandolfini, we’re also totally saying that. Whack us, we don't care, because Gandolfini’s portrayal of the Jersey mobster who loves his family, ducks, and killing — not necessarily in that order — most definitely cemented his spot in the Hall of Onscreen Mobsters Fame.
So, upon Tony’s request, let’s all take our hats off to the actor who played Complicated Horse Guy and a guy who, at least, went to therapy ...
James Gandolfini Was Nice To Everyone (Even The Little Guys)
While Gandolfini had his difficult moments filming The Sopranos (more on that later), he was also just a great guy to have on set by the sound of literally everyone. When guest star Peter Riegert had a problem doing a nude scene for the show, it was Gandolfini who showed his concern after seeing his co-star in distress — Riegert kept quiet for fear of getting fired — and it was Gandolfini who convinced creator David Chase to let Riegert keep his pants on during the scene where Tony beats the living daylights out of his butt.
Riegert later said of the man he called a real mensch: “The thing was, at that table read, I didn't realize that Jim recognized, on my face, that there was an actor in trouble. And he made it so it was my choice.”
Gandolfini was not the kind of lead actor who made everything about himself. Jamie-Lynn Sigler — who played Tony’s daughter, Meadow — shared the rehearsal story of her first big episode in which her character tours Maine with her dad to scout potential colleges: “I remember I walked into the room where we would have our read-throughs, and Jim always sat at the head of the table in a big chair, and when I walked in to sit in my normal chair, he called me over, and he said, ‘No, you sit in this one — this is your episode.’ And so I sat in his chair.”
When it was revealed that the other actors’ contracts with HBO stated they wouldn’t be getting a cut of the series’ DVD sales, Gandolfini was livid about the inequality of it all. He gave all the regulars a piece of his own cut and, in addition, wrote each of them a check for thousands of dollars. Gandolfini wasn’t just nice to his main co-stars, either. Back in 1999, Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college — and still penning his award-winning Broadway musical Into the Heights — when The Sopranos premiered. He would only acquire fame and fortune years later, which is why he was still a relative nobody when he landed a bit part as a bellboy in season 6.
Miranda was so green back then that you can literally see him looking for his mark in that scene, so to hear him talk about how Gandolfini helped him get through his part is just a classic example of the guy he was: “My one story about Gandolfini was that he stayed and did his sides even though it was the end of the night. He had no need to do that. He stayed and did the scene for the scared-s**tless Puerto Rican kid in the bellhop outfit.”
Maybe the fact that Gandolfini would often say in interviews (the few that he did) that he was nothing more than “a dumb, fat guy from Jersey” explains his down-to-earth attitude — even though he had studied acting and learned the Meisner technique prior to his acting career. He really didn’t have an air about him (like many successful people unfortunately develop), and he had doubts about his ability to play the mobster who once hid a gun inside a fish. Of his audition back in 1999, Gandolfini said: “I thought it was a wonderful script. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye.” David Chase once said of the man: “He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”
HBO’s statement following Gandolfini’s sudden death perfectly summed up what everyone thought of him: “He was a special man, a great talent, but more importantly, a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect.”
Gandolfini’s Commitment To The Craft
The late actor who made wearing robes during daytime cool again had a good sense of humor, but he was also as serious a thespian as the best of them. He would wear that bulky signature robe of his during hell-weather to stay in character. He would drink a whole lot of coffee and put a rock in his shoe to manifest Tony’s agitated state. No one could fill up a screen and go from big and domineering to small and vulnerable quite like Gandolfini could:
GQ correspondent Brett Martin, who had the honor of watching Gandolfini perform on set, wrote about his experience: “Anybody who has ever been on a TV or movie set knows there is no place more guaranteed to exterminate any sense of romance about TV and the movies. Not so when Gandolfini was shooting, say, an ordinary family dinner scene of The Sopranos. Every take, and there were always dozens, would be just a little bit different. Every line delivery bringing up another subtle shade or variation of the character he had so come to embody. And each time, you could tell, required a return journey into that character as real and visceral as the plate of spaghetti and braciole he would dig into again and again and again. It was hypnotizing. It was exhausting.”
And it was because Gandolfini didn't just embody Tony Soprano. He delved into the character’s troubled psyche … and it had its effects. There was a time during the filming of the acclaimed HBO series when the actor struggled to drag his ass to work. He’d phone in sick or simply not show up, only to feel so guilty about it the next day that he would treat the cast and crew to a top-notch sushi lunch or an afternoon of massages.
He once disappeared for four days, with no one knowing where he was or whether he was even okay. But everybody understood — no one resented him for it — because the man was playing a character with such fierce commitment, it would take a toll on most. Everyone seemed to at least have an idea of what it meant to be number one.
Gandolfini put a lot of pressure on himself to just, you know, do a good job. He’d get angry at himself whenever he couldn’t remember a line and often scolded himself for what he thought was incompetency. And yet, the man was shooting 16 hours a day on a show where he was in every other scene saying a ton of lines while playing a depressed serial killer who dreams of his pecker getting snatched up by a duck.
Hilarious On Set Moment
While blooper reels show the many shenanigans that went on behind the scenes, one incident stands out that both shows how committed Gandolfini was to authenticity, and how he could totally lose it on set while keeping it professional at the same time. Steve Schirripa (who played Bobby Baccalieri) shared a story in the documentary James Gandolfini: Tribute to a Friend about Gandolfini asking him during this following scene to really make him laugh.
That’s a good laugh, and it was genuine too. See, Schirripa talked to one of their prop guys about bringing something into the scene while Gandolfini’s reactions were being shot. The prop guy gave Schirripa “the biggest dildo, looked like an Italian bread,” which, when Gandolfini saw it, made him almost “fall over laughing.” Schirripa wore the giant dong for the entire scene offscreen. We bet Gandolfini ordered everyone a dozen more massages afterward.
Gandolfini Knew When To Move On
For an actor to play a character with such intensity for so long can oftentimes lead to a weird form of Stockholm syndrome, where it’s difficult for them to part with their onscreen other half. Thank God, not so for James Gandolfini. The man had enough personal issues and might’ve just gone off the rails if he had to do another half a dozen seasons.
Said Gandolfini following the end of The Sopranos: “It’s been a great opportunity, but I don’t have much trepidation about it ending. I think it’s more than time. Part of the fun of acting is the research, finding out about other people. As much as I’ve explored this guy, I don’t know what else to really do with him. I’ve been in one place for 10 years. That’s enough. It’s time for me to do other things.”
From both an actor’s and also just a human’s point of view, that sure is a good and healthy approach to a job. While it’s easy to get lost in a project and allow a job to become part of one’s identity, knowing when to move on shows character and the ability to let go. Gandolfini went on to do Broadway and films like Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly, and he took on a behind-the-scenes role as a producer of documentaries about injured Iraq war veterans and the impact of PTSD on soldiers throughout America’s wars.
Gandolfini kept producing movies and documentaries up until his death in 2013. And while he ended up being a man of many hats, he’ll always be our cigar-loving, always-singing Tony Soprano.