Tim Goodman on James Gandolfini: 'You Couldn't Look Away From Him'

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

Gandolfini struck gold when he landed the role of mafia boss Tony Soprano on HBO’s critically beloved drama from David Chase. The actor scored six Emmy nominations, winning three awards -- in 2000, 2001 and 2003. Gandolfini reflected on the moment he became aware of the show’s significance in a 2012 Vanity Fair oral history: “I went to a boxing match with some of the guys, and it was like this crowd just went, ‘Roarrrr.’ So that was like, OK, it’s pretty big.” Tony Soprano is an iconic TV character, often landing on lists celebrating the small-screen’s best creations. According to Metacritic, which aggregates critics’ reviews, The Sopranos has a superb 96 rating.

James Gandolfini was trying to make small talk -- or rather, not to talk at all. He was at what was then the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, looking uncomfortable, about to walk into the lowest-key awards show in history -- the no-filming allowed, one-hour-and-done Television Critics Association awards. The nation’s television critics were the first to see what everybody else would soon figure out -- that Gandolfini was about to change the face of television as Tony Soprano.

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The year was 1999 and Gandolfini, less than 24-hours removed from getting his first (of six) Emmy nominations for best actor, was there -- by HBO’s demand -- to get his first significant acknowledgement of his incredible acting talents.

He clearly wanted to be somewhere else. He was nervous. He was fidgeting. A small group of critics, mingling about before the awards ceremony, were chatting with him. One by one the group was getting bigger -- and Gandolfini’s answers were getting shorter. He was not curt. He was not displaying any ego. He just wasn’t used to the attention. And it was clearly bugging him. He expressed surprise at even getting the role -- the role that would define his acting career until his shocking death. He gave all credit to Sopranos creator David Chase. Every time he looked up, more critics had circled around him.

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“We’re good, right?” he asked politely and looked desperately for an HBO publicist. They were right there as they already knew this experience would be hard for him. After the TCA awards, the custom is for everybody to hang out and have some dessert and drinks, mingle a bit. Lots of stars stick around and chat. Compared to pretty much any other event, it’s not much of a media circus. Nobody gets mobbed much. There isn’t even a red carpet. I walked over to Gandolfini when it was all done, told him congratulations and, looking at him, asked, “It wasn’t that bad, was it?” He laughed, looked around nervously and less than a minute later, said to a nearby HBO publicist -- almost like he was having a panic attack -- “Get me out of here. Get me out of here, now.”

And just like that, he was gone, escorted out of the hotel and back into what he clearly hoped would be some kind of obscurity, where he could just do his job. He wanted to act. Not talk about acting or accept awards for it.

Of course, that was never to be. The Sopranos became one of the most influential dramas in history, ushering in an era where prestigious, grown-up, ambitious television would lead a kind of cable revolution. The drama Renaissance started there and hasn’t ended yet. Gandolfini’s riveting work as Tony was a major part of it.

His death Wednesday was shocking and, obviously, unexpected. Post-Sopranos, Gandolfini had gone on to star in a number of films and just last month had a new project, the limited-series Criminal Justice, picked up at HBO.

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It’s a terrible loss for the acting world. Gandolfini was memorable in pretty much everything he did but will forever be seen as Tony Soprano. It was a role he completely inhabited, a hulking presence able to be project menace and kindness in equal measures. He was a mobster suffering from anxiety and depression, whose own mother tried to have him killed in season one. As Tony, Gandolfini grew -- literally -- in the role and managed, with equal doses of charm, anger, compassion and ruthlessness to make an anti-hero too likable even for his creator. By the third season of The Sopranos, Chase was worried that Americans found Tony Soprano too likable, too heroic. He told television critics that year that Tony was a man who had done evil things and was never meant to be some kind of patron saint of mob coolness. He promised to ratchet up the bad side of Tony.

Chase did, but it didn’t seem to matter much to fans. Gandolfini had supercharged the role of Tony into one of television’s most magnetic personalities. You couldn’t look away from him. You had to adjust your moral compass to like him, given all the bad things he did. But that was part of the genius of Gandolfini’s performance, which would yield more TCA wins and, of course, more Emmy nominations and victories as well.

Over the years, Gandolfini got a lot better at handling the attention. He got better at handling the press, of controlling his own stress at having the spotlight focused on him. I remember in later years how smooth he looked at awards shows. Always sincere, never fake. He probably wanted to leave as soon as possible then as well, but fame is fame and you can’t escape it when you’re as big as Gandolfini was in the Sopranos' glory years.

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When I heard Gandolfini had died, I thought about that time I’d first met him. The benefit of hindsight is we all got to see him blossom into a TV icon, a fantastic actor. And, of course, I saw him change as described above, to morph into a guy more comfortable in his own skin. But it was something on that day in 1999 to know what Gandolfini apparently couldn’t fathom or didn’t want to think about – that he was too great of an actor, in a role too perfect to even imagine, not to be a huge star. We’d already seen the episodes. The greatness was obvious. There was no turning back.

But I’ll also remember, about a year or so later, getting a thank you letter from him for something I wrote, sent to me at the San Francisco Chronicle. It wasn’t a form letter. And I laughed when I saw he’d put his home address on the outside of the envelope. I guess even at that point he didn’t want to admit he was too big to be doing something like that. He didn’t know or didn’t want to admit that he wasn’t just an actor anymore.

He was Tony Soprano, evermore.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine