Entertainment & Arts

Tony Soprano - Gandolfini's defining role

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
Image caption Tony Soprano was Gandolfini's first major screen role, and it was the role that was to define his career
(l-r) Steve Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico
Image caption The show was an unexpected hit with viewers when it began broadcasting in 1999
Edie Falco and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos
Image caption Gandolfini's co-star Edie Falco, who played his wife Carmela, also won global recognition for her role
Lorraine Bracco and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos
Image caption As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini unburdened his guilty conscience to his analyst Dr Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco
(l-r) Jamie-Lyn Sigler, Edie Falco, James Gandolfini and Robert Iler
Image caption Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler played Gandolfini's on-screen son and daughter in the show
James Gandolfini with Michael Imperioli in The Sopranos
Image caption The Sopranos has been credited with kickstarting the trend for purchasing boxsets. It was also one of HBO's earliest success stories.
James Gandolfini, with Edie Falco and Robert Iler in The Sopranos
Image caption The last show of the HBO series was filmed at Holsten's ice cream parlour in New Jersey, where Gandolfini's death was marked on Thursday

James Gandolfini became a star because of Tony Soprano, but he was an unlikely choice for the role and The Sopranos was an unlikely idea for a television series.

When production started in 1998, Gandolfini was 36 and a powerful stage actor who had most success with strong roles in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.

But he had little television experience and he didn't see himself as typical leading man material.

For the role of Tony Soprano, he once said: "I thought they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney."

If the series had aired on any of the major US television networks, that is exactly who would have been cast. But The Sopranos did not air on those channels, though it was not for want of trying.

Back in 1996, when it was suggested that he think of a TV version of The Godfather that could run as a series, creator David Chase pitched the show everywhere - and failed. Every network rejected it, including Fox which had been interested enough to pay for it to be developed.

Instead, The Sopranos landed on cable subscription channel HBO. HBO gets most of its money from subscribers, so it isn't reliant on advertisers, which means it doesn't need to try and appeal to the greatest number of people all of the time. Ironically, the fact that it doesn't try has meant that it has created some of US television's most acclaimed shows.

David Chase says that HBO was the perfect fit for The Sopranos and he means it: "There's no way that the show would have wound up on network television. And it wasn't the nudity, profanity or violence that bothered the networks - it was the details, the complexity, the different pacing. The Sopranos turned out be a show you could not put on anywhere but HBO."

'Sad eyes'

The freedom of HBO meant Chase had much more control over who he could cast, and here Gandolfini's experience was a help instead of a hindrance. "We knew that we needed actors with New York-New Jersey roots and, whenever possible, theatre experience as well," says Chase.

Tony Soprano is a big role. He's a powerful mob boss but his strength comes from his very quiet, all pervasive, control.

For Gandolfini to convince his audience, you needed to believe that there was a cauldron boiling inside Soprano, and yet also that if he chose to hurt you, it was a very specific choice.

Tony Soprano didn't explode, he destroyed - and when it suited him. Gandolfini had the physical presence to portray a powerful man but he also had the stage experience of subtly, slowly conveying control - building tension and unease.

But if he learnt his craft on stage, it was television which arguably suited Gandolfini best, because it was the intimacy of close-up camerawork that revealed how nuanced his acting really was.

"Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that," said Chase. "He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."


Television also worked for him, and The Sopranos, because the story built up over the years instead of being completed in an evening. Gandolfini gained stature and Tony Soprano gained layers as the series continued across 86 episodes, until 2007.

Over that time, Gandolfini won three Emmys for the role, plus awards from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.

He did initially object to the role finishing and, in particular, the controversial way that the series ended in mid-sentence. The screen turned to black, convincing many viewers that something had gone wrong with their TV sets or with the broadcaster.

However, the decision to cut off rather than fade out was a conscious choice by David Chase to say that this mob world continues forever, that there was to be no faux resolution to the story. It was another facet to the drama that perfectly suited HBO but would never have been shown on ordinary network television.

Gandolfini said that, at first, he was confused and upset but later decided it was the perfect ending - even if he didn't entirely understand what it meant. "You'll have to ask David Chase that," he said. "Smarter minds than mine know the answer to that. I thought it was a great ending."

He went on to work continuously in films afterwards - clocking up impressive performances in films such as In the Loop and Zero Dark Thirty, but he never found another role that quite fitted him so well as Tony Soprano.