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Friday, June 21, 2013

The Life and Times of James Gandolfini

Last month in one of my Tuesday Timeline entries, I talked about the series finale of the sitcom “Newhart”, in which many people believe was one of the best show endings of all time. And, it got me thinking about how other series concluded their runs. In most cases, the show endings ranged from satisfactory to brilliant.

On “Full House”, the show ended after Michelle fell off a horse and lost her memory (which granted, wasn't that big as she was like only seven or eight). But don't worry...she got it back. “Roseanne” kind of spoofed the Newhart “it was all a dream” ending by having the entire last season be part of a manuscript that Roseanne was writing as a fictional story. And, the “Dallas” finale ended on a cliffhanger that was not resolved for at least six or seven years after the final episode aired! How ironic that a television series that perfected the cliffhanger would end on the mother of all cliffhangers, huh?

And, I'm also reminded of the series finale of the television show “The Sopranos”.

Anyone who has watched that episode knows that the series finale ended on a peculiar note. It showed Tony Soprano, his wife Carmela, and his son AJ sitting down and sharing a family moment as some man watches them talking. As the man leaves to enter the restroom, the song “Don't Stop Believin'” by Journey begins to play, and Tony's daughter, Meadow Soprano enters the diner. Tony looks up...

...and that's where the show ends. The screen goes dark, there's a ten-second silence with a black screen, and then the closing credits begin to scroll.

The finale was purposely shot so that the audience would be able to come up with their own conclusions about what happened to the Soprano family. Maybe Tony and his family were gunned down. Maybe Tony and his family were blown up. Maybe Meadow was going to stab her father in the back by literally stabbing him in the back. Or, maybe...just maybe, the Sopranos would hold hands and sing Kumbaya to each other while they were sitting in the diner.

(Well, okay, maybe that last idea seemed a little too farfetched.)

The point is that the final episode of “The Sopranos” was one that ended abruptly. Sadly, the star of the show suffered a similar fate on June 19, 2013, as it was on this day that a heart attack would end his life abruptly at the age of 51.

Today, we are paying tribute to the late James Gandolfini, who passed away on Wednesday while vacationing with his family in Italy. He is survived by his second wife, Deborah, his thirteen year old son, Michael, and his eight month old daughter, Liliana.

Gandolfini's death sent shock waves throughout Hollywood as well as the entire world. Stars such as Edie Falco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, John Travolta, and Brad Pitt all expressed their heartfelt condolences within hours of his passing, and logging onto Facebook yesterday, at least half of my news feed was clogged with articles about his death, as well as tribute pieces.

(The latter was what inspired me to do my blog on the life and times of James Gandolfini.)

Now, James Gandolfini was obviously most well known for his role as Tony Soprano, the New Jersey mob boss who has at least seven deaths linked to him throughout the series, who struggled to maintain his status within the criminal mob while being the devoted husband and father that he wanted to be. No wonder he was seeing a shrink during the whole series!  But he was more than that in his real life.

James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born on September 18, 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey to a lunch lady mother and a bricklayer father, both of whom had Italian ancestry in their blood. James' father even served in World War II and earned a Purple Heart for his services in the war. Because of his parents Italian background, as well as their belief in the Roman Catholic faith, James Gandolfini also embraced his Italian heritage, and would visit Italy as often as he could.

It seems almost fitting that Italy would be the place in which he would take his final breath.

After graduating as part of the Class of 1979 from Park Ridge High School (where his classmates awarded him the high school superlative of “Class Flirt”, Gandolfini earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Rutgers University. His large frame at the time helped him win a job as a bouncer at a campus pub, and worked as a bartender and club manager before pursuing the career that would make him a household name for the better part of a decade.

When Gandolfini was a young man, he befriended a man named Roger Bart (who was most recently in the ABC comedy-drama “Desperate Housewives”), and it was Bart who encouraged Gandolfini to try his hand at acting by enrolling in an acting class. It wasn't too long after that class that Gandolfini would land his very first acting role in the 1987 film “Shock! Shock! Shock!”

(Well, okay, so his role as “Orderly” was not a huge role where he said a whole lot...but like every single professional out there, they all had to start at the bottom and take whatever roles they could get, right?)

Besides, in the case of Gandolfini, his rise to stardom was slow, but very steady. He dabbled a little bit in Broadway when he took on a six-week role in “On The Waterfront” in 1992, and the following year, he landed the role of Virgil in 1993's “True Romance”. Virgil could be best described as a “brutal, woman-beating mob enforcer”, and James claimed that the inspiration behind personifying Virgil was a friend of his who also happened to be a hitman.

(Suddenly, the characterization of Tony Soprano makes a lot more sense now.)

Anyway, James Gandolfini landed several film roles during the 1990s. He starred as Russian mobster disguised as timid insurance salesman Ben Pinkwater in 1994's “Terminal Velocity”, landed a key role in 1995's “Get Shorty”, and in 1996, he once again played a mob enforcer in “The Juror”.

Now, there was a part of me that wondered if Gandolfini ever got frustrated with being typecast, as in almost every single role he took on, he played someone who either lead a mob, or someone who was a huge part of a mob. But, I think that James took it in stride. After all, he wouldn't have accepted the role of Tony Soprano if he had felt this way.

And, wasn't as though he played a mob boss in every movie he starred in. He played Lt. Bobby Doughtery in 1995's “Crimson Tide”, appeared in the romantic-comedy “Angie” in 1994 (where unfortunately, his character is kicked to the curb by Geena Davis), and in 2001, his comedic role in “The Mexican” earned Gandolfini the L.A. Outfest Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role!

But again, his most associated role was that of Tony Soprano. I'm not sure if Gandolfini knew that “The Sopranos” would do so well when it debuted on HBO on January 10, 1999, but it took off in a huge way, running for eighty-six episodes until the controversial series finale aired on June 10, 2007.

The concept of the show was more or less based on the life of show creator David Chase, and believe it or not, it was originally intended to be made into a feature film. But by the mid-1990s, while “The Sopranos” was still in its planning stages, the decision was made instead to turn it into a television series. And, for Chase, the challenge was to incorporate his own experiences of growing up in an Italian-American family in the heart of New Jersey into a mobster family. For example, his own relationship with his mother was very similar to the one that Tony shared with his mother, Livia (who was played by the late Nancy Marchand). And, the character of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was based on the psychiatrist that Chase visited during his youth.

And, I think that part of the reason why “The Sopranos” did so well was because people could actually relate to it in ways that nobody thought possible. Okay, so maybe most of us haven't actually committed any crimes, or have shot a dozen people and secretly buried their bodies where nobody could find them. But, I am sure that most of us have had to deal with having overbearing parents who simply don't know how to let their children go. I'm sure quite a few of us have had to deal with the troubles of teenagers during their rebellious periods. In some cases, people have had affairs behind their spouses backs (just as Tony had done during his marriage to Carmela). And, yes, some people have gone to seek out advice from psychiatrists in order to decide what steps they need to take to move ahead in life.

The end result was a show that became the most financially successful cable television show to air, perhaps of all time. Many people today consider the show to be the best television series ever created. The show has earned a total of twenty-one Emmy Awards (of which Gandolfini won the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three times in 2000, 2001, and 2003), and several pieces of merchandise were released alongside the DVD collection sets, including books, a video game, and several successful soundtrack albums.

And, in 2013, the Writer's Guild of America declared the show to be one of the best-written television series of all time! What an honour!

Now, truth be told, I didn't really get into The Sopranos until the show's fourth season. And, even then, I was sort of a casual viewer at best. But, you know what, I have to give props to every single cast and crew member who worked on that series, as they made a show that was not only believable, but filled with heart and soul. And, I do believe that as the main character of the series, Gandolfini was literally the glue that held everything together, as his performance was nothing short of near perfection.

And, even after the series wrapped up in 2007, Gandolfini continued to work hard. He served as producer for two documentaries (“Alive Day: Home from Iraq and Wartorn: 1861-2010), and he continued to act in a variety of films such as “The Taking of Pelham 123”, “Where The Wild Things Are”, and “Zero Dark Thirty”. And, his work continued to be highly praised (well, save for the 2004 bomb “Surviving Christmas”) and he continued to be rewarded and honoured for his great work.

And, that was why he and his family were on vacation in Italy in June 2013. He and his family were to do some sightseeing in Rome before heading down to Sicily to receive an award at the Taormina Film Fest on June 22, 2013. Sadly, he would not make it to Sicily, as he died of a massive heart attack the evening of June 19.

May he rest in peace.

James Gandolfini


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