Actor James Gandolfini was laid to rest earlier this week in New York City. What follows is a tribute to him.
“He’s a goodfella. He’s one of us,” says Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill character during the closing half hour of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “GoodFellas”. Mr. Liotta could have been speaking of fellow actor James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack two weeks ago.
The man many of us knew on HBO cable television as Tony Soprano was only 51.
(By the way, it should be said that Mr. Liotta and Mr. Gandolfini appeared separately in Andrew Dominik’s film drama “Killing Them Softly”, released last year in the U.S. and Canada.)
Like millions of others Mr. Gandolfini’s abrupt passing on June 19 in Rome, Italy came as a deep shock and profound sadness to me.
Just like famed NBC newsman Tim Russert, 58, whose sudden death resulted from a heart attack in June 2008 (except after returning from Italy), Mr. Gandolfini was a regular man, a genuine and good-natured man. Above all he too was a class act who was well-liked and respected.
Both were big men with big hearts.
James Gandolfini was one of us. He didn’t seek the spotlight even as it sought him. Rich and famous, Mr. Gandolfini stuck doggedly to the working class roots of his own upbringing. He attained success, it now sadly turns out, relatively late in his life. He was a lunch pail guy, a blue collar meat-and-potatoes man who loved acting. The love of acting and the zeal in which he performed showed.
Mr. Gandolfini’s coarseness in a scene with Brad Pitt in Mr. Dominik’s aforementioned 2012 film contrasts with the understated but insistent tones of the New Jersey-born Rutgers graduate’s portrayal of the-then CIA director Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s drama “Zero Dark Thirty”, also from last year. There’s an intensity in both performances, which has everything to do with his intellect and internal disposition and nothing at all with his imposing girth.
Tony Soprano had the horrible aspects of the human condition plus the complexity of family dynamic and everyday human relationships etched in his soul. Mr. Gandolfini, in simultaneously deft and rugged fashion, balanced mob sociopath with inadequate, besieged teddy bear in the marital home.
Writer-director David Chase conducted that infectious Sopranos symphony and Mr. Gandolfini sang its tune to a T. T for Tony. T for trouble. T for terrific.
You could feel the dirt and earth of the ground in Tony’s hands as he struggled with himself. That gravely bark of his, the hair-trigger temper, the volatility, the bigotry. The extramarital affairs. The psychosis. The violence. The love and the pain.
I did not meet James Gandolfini. Most of us didn’t. We all knew him from television, stage or film. When you saw him you saw a natural craftsman. You couldn’t tell he was acting. That, in itself, is acting personnified. James Gandolfini inhabited bad seeds, softies, generals, CIA directors, cops, hit men, salesmen, fathers, politicians. He did so in the same seemingly routine way yet made a strong, effective impact each time.
I felt the same shock five years ago when learning of Mr. Russert’s death. I felt the same shock four years ago when learning of Michael Jackson’s death (also in the month of June.) I was deeply saddened. I said to myself “that tomorrow is promised to nobody.” Life can never be taken for granted.
Too many of us think we can live forever. The simple truth is that life is hard.
Life is also joyous, unpredictable, amazing and, yes, incredibly short. Life is meant to be lived and learned. No matter how many times this is understood there’s something jarringly painful about seeing a decent, well-liked person suddenly gone from the stage.
Life seems to always do that to the good guys and gals, those men and women who lived in the right way and stayed true to themselves to the end.
James Gandolfini, Tim Russert and Michael Jackson. All were in their fifties when they suddenly died. All died in the month of June. Each worked very hard to get to where they were.
All were very good at what they did. In Mr. Jackson’s case, supremely good. All are sorely missed.
James Gandolfini was a kingfish, a man who came to work and did what he had to. The ordinariness of his acting, the passion and commitment of his family life, and the genuineness of his heart and being will not be lost on those who were touched by him.
Omar P.L. Moore is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the editor and creator of The Popcorn Reel movie review/interview website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, read at www.popcornreel.com, contacted at twitter.com/popcornreel and seen reviewing films at youtube.com/popcornreel.
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