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This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He was 37 when we cast him. He certainly carried himself like someone with more years on him. He had a lot of world weariness to him as an actor and as a person in some ways. He just didn’t like the spotlight. He was uncomfortable with it. And he wore his fame, which became enormous, somewhat uneasily.
The first time I really saw him up close and personal was when we tested three actors for the role. It was Jimmy, it was Michael Rispoli and Stevie Van Zandt, actually. And when it was all over, David Chase said, “Look, I’ve got something in mind for Stevie, a role I’m going to write for him.” And we talked about Michael and Jimmy, and Michael’s a terrific actor and ended up playing Jackie Aprile in the show. But it was clear that this guy, Tony, needed to be menacing, needed to be fierce, but needed to be human. Even though it was a live audition in a dark room — it was our screening room at HBO where we did these auditions — it was just clear that he had those characteristics. But it wasn’t really until we started to look at the first cut of the show that you really saw a character unlike anything we’d seen on television before.
I remember when we screened the first episode for our premiere, and we had a big audience, I was amazed and almost upset at how much laughter the show was getting. But it was not just David’s great writing and the great performances of the actors, led by Jimmy, who could play something so real that the irony of his situation, his humanity, the many facets of his life, the family man — which was actually our first one-sheet for the show; if one family doesn’t kill him the other one will — it was a bowl of contradictions. But the way that Jimmy played it was as a seamless, complex human being who at one moment could be frightening and at another moment could have an audience laughing out loud. That’s a unique combination for an actor to be able to elicit.
I think he realized [the role was going to define him], and he resisted it. Not in terms of defining him but in terms of being swept up in it. I think some of how he lived his life was to keep himself grounded in the world he felt he needed to be in. And even as the show progressed, especially in the later seasons, he felt himself being affected by the things the character did. And he was starting to have difficulty playing that role, even though you would never know it from watching it because he was brilliant until the very last frame.
He had a very big heart, and he felt a lot of responsibility to the show, to the cast but especially to the crew. And he very much had an everyman quality to him as a person and world perspective. At one point, there was a well-publicized contract dispute between HBO and Jimmy. And no matter what we did, we couldn’t come to an agreement with him. And then finally we said: “You know what, we’re going to have to let the whole crew go. We’re going to shut down the show.” And within 24 hours, we had reached an agreement. Because the thing that he was not going to allow to happen was to have all of those other people suffer. It may have been a little dirty pool on our part, but it was certainly something that I think showed his incredible heart and leadership and selflessness. We had a pretty good idea.
I’ve been around a lot of talented people. No one has ever been better in anything than Jimmy was in that show. You can look at any other performance and say, “Hey, that’s just as good.” It’s hard to say someone is the best ever. But I don’t think you can point to anything that’s better; the level and quality of the performance, the length and evolution of the character, the command that he had of every nuanced element was extraordinary. And I don’t think anyone has ever been better than he was in that.
Read more tributes to Gandolfini below:
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