The death of James Gandolfini, the burly 51-year-old star of HBO’s suburban gangster drama The Sopranos, created a moment in America’s fragmented culture that is hard to duplicate. Though only a relatively small number of people have seen his portrayal of Tony Soprano, the New Jersey crime boss with the dysfunctional home life, practically everyone knows the character.
Popular culture has always reflected, even celebrated, violence and the gangster who lives by it on his own terms. Mr. Gandolfini’s intimate portrayal of a neurotic mob boss richly informed a deeply American epic.
But Mr. Gandolfini was an actor — a fine one with a brilliant script. In real life, he was a gentle, humorous, and compassionate man who did a lot of charitable work with veterans. With those sad, uncomprehending eyes, Mr. Bandolfini created a brutal character that most people could identify with in some way.
Mr. Gandolfini died of a heart attack last week while vacationing in Italy. The news triggered an outpouring of grief on social media from actors and fans alike. Critics were the most effusive in their praise. The consensus was Mr. Gandolfini’s award-winning portrayal of a mob boss suffering from panic attacks paved the way for a wave of equally flawed, but appealing TV characters.
Mr. Gandolfini had many rewarding roles in his career, but nothing as iconic as his six seasons as the patriarch on The Sopranos. He was the reason Americans decided that crime could pay — as long as it involved just Tony Soprano.
James Gandolfini changed viewers’ expectations of what they could expect on television — and he set the bar high. In doing so, he left an indelible print on American popular culture.