R.I.P. James Gandolfini (1961-2013)
"Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky." -- Ojibwe saying
I didn't know James Gandolfini, but I knew Tony Soprano.
Knew him well.
Tony Soprano, that "fat fucking crook from New Jersey" (his words, not mine), that walking amalgam of every human flaw, of all seven deadly sins. A living, breathing paradox who could rationalize killing his own nephew in cold blood and yet would openly sob recounting the image of a family of ducks opting to vacate his pool and fly south for the winter.
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One time, in an effort to bed her, Tony Soprano told his therapist Dr. Melfi that "there are two Tony Sopranos," but truth be told Tony may have lowballed that number, because by my count, mob boss, husband, father, boyfriend, captain of industry, cold blooded murderer, and yes, "fat fucking crook," are all fitting descriptions.
But the transcendence of Tony Soprano was in his ability to juggle those roles, at times, simultaneously.
Because only Tony Soprano could bring his daughter, Meadow, on college visits to rural Maine, and then use that "daddy-daughter" time to track down a "rat" who went government witness on his other "family," strangle said "rat" in cold blood, and somehow return to north Jersey with an even stronger bond with his daughter.
And only Tony Soprano could stop off at a New York eatery to curb stomp a rival gangster who disrespected Meadow when he saw her out on a date the previous evening, leave the poor bastard's teeth scattered about the floor like popcorn at the Cinemark, and then head over to his son's psychiatrist's office to casually discuss how the kid's bout with depression was coming along. (Worth noting, in that meeting with the psychiatrist, Tony found a stray, bloody tooth in the cuff of his slacks.)
And only Tony Soprano could take a quiet, autumn walk with his wife on the new piece of land he just bought her so she could begin her fledgling career as a custom builder, all the while knowing full well that hours ago he had just green lighted a successful hit on his nephew's fiancé (another pesky government informant) and that he was on the verge of having to execute a mercy hit himself on his own cousin.
When his wife, Carmela, noticed he seemed distracted as they took their peaceful stroll, she asked "Are you all right?"
Tony just chuckled, softly took her hand, and said "Me? Yeah, absolutely."
And therein lies the irony, because in the time we knew Tony Soprano, he was never all right.
Not even close. If it wasn't his uncle and mother wanting him killed, it was the mob families over in New York. If the FBI wasn't investigating him for securities fraud or stolen airline tickets, they were squeezing him for gun charges. If his daughter wasn't causing him angst by dating a half Jew, half black brainiac from Columbia, his son was doing so by getting engaged to a Puerto Rican. If his nephew wasn't killing a dog, his top earner was committing arson to fry his racehorse. (By the way, as irrational as it sounds, those last two things may have angered Tony, a noted animal lover, more than any of the others. I know, it's weird.)
Tony dealt with this big pile of bullshit through an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and a single-minded greed that made rationalizing murder, even of supposed loved ones, second nature, so long as the ultimate beneficiaries were him and his family.
Put simply, if Darwin were still around, he'd have a field day with Tony Soprano.
Whacking his best friend, Big Pussy? He was a rat, he tried to bring the family down.
Whacking his friend's son, Jackie, Jr.? He disrespected Tony's daughter and robbed one of his poker games.
Whacking his nephew's fiancé, Adriana? Another rat. Honestly, Tony had zero time for rats.
Whacking his cousin, Tony B? It was the only way to make peace with New York, and there's too much money at stake not to have peace with New York.
Whacking his nephew, Chrissy? There's nobody more vulnerable to the feds than a two-bit junkie who gets pinched for a nickel bag of white powder.
And oddly enough, through the river of bloodshed, somehow we came to love this man, and we rooted for the fat, fucking crook. We were saddened when Carmela kicked him out of the house after the Russian goomar made her little phone call, we were terrified when Uncle Junior shot him in the stomach, and we cheered wildly when he told Johnny Sack to go fuck himself when the New York boss wanted Tony to dime out his cousin.
And yes, we were all pissed when Dr. Melfi decided not to unleash Tony on the goddamn, fucking animal who raped her in the stairwell.
Hell, even FBI Agent Harris, who spent a large chunk of his adult life trying to put Tony behind bars, cheered "We're gonna win this thing!" when he found out about Tony's crew whacking rival boss Phil Leotardo.
If you've read this far, I think you'll agree, there will never be another Tony Soprano.
On Tuesday afternoon, James Gandolfini died in Italy of a heart attack at the age of 51. He had been scheduled to make an appearance at the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily this week. He is survived by his wife, Deborah, and their 9-month-old daughter, Liliana. He is also survived by a son, Michael, from another marriage.
He also leaves behind the gift of a character, Tony Soprano, that gave viewers years of enjoyment, that filled us with a week long anticipation of 86 different Sunday nights that sustained a lot of us through entire chunks of the calendar year.
James Gandolfini leaves us a character that somehow made us all fall in love with a sociopath, and compelled so many viewers to crave made-for-cable antiheroes, that you could argue Tony Soprano paved the way for the likes of Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey, and Omar Little, to name a few.
So compelling was Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano that places like the bottom of a driveway and a dingy strip club became must-see tourist attractions in north Jersey. For diehard Sopranos enthusiasts, La Cibeles (Vesuvio), Satin Dolls (the Bada Bing!), and Holsten's (as itself) are the rides at the Soprano-land portion of Disney World.
In 2008, my kids and I were on vacation in New York City, and we drove over to Jersey for the afternoon. We ate at Holsten's, and sat in the booth where the legendary final scene was filmed. We ordered onion rings ("best in the state, far as I'm concerned"), we laughed, and for authenticity's sake, I may or may not have even let them curse throughout the entire meal.
Some parents take their kids on educational trips to the Grand Canyon or Washington, D.C. Me, I felt it was important my kids got to see what Frelinghuysen Avenue was all about.
James Gandolfini gave life to a character with whom he's so inextricably linked that it's almost impossible to separate the two of them, which may have ultimately wound up being both a blessing and a curse.
All I know is that when I see James Gandolfini, I see Tony Soprano, and I don't know that I can summarize his greatness any better than that.
And now he's gone.
That magnificent genius is gone, and like Tony that night at Holsten's with his family, just before the screen cut to black, we are left to remember the times that were good.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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