As New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, which ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, James Gandolfini created a character that helped open television to a new era of great and nuanced acting. When he died in Italy on Wednesday at the age of 51, fans around the world were shocked.
And as Fresh Air's television critic David Bianculli noticed, there was an instant online outpouring that celebrated "what an iconic performance he gave us in terms of television."
"I think," says Bianculli, "it's the best television performance of this current century, the most defining one."
Although Fresh Air and the people who work here were big fans of The Sopranos, Gandolfini was never on our show. The understanding was that he shied away from interviews.
Nevertheless, to pay tribute to a great actor, today's Fresh Air reaches into the archives for interviews with a few of those who knew Gandolfini and worked with him.
In 2000, Sopranos creator David Chase gave a great deal of the credit for the show to his star, saying that "without Jim Gandolfini there is no Sopranos."
A year later, Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini's wife, Carmela, on the show, talked about how she kept a personal distance from him to maintain the closeness of their fictional relationship.
And in 2012, actor Jeff Daniels spoke about working with Gandolfini on the Broadway production of God of Carnage.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I found out that James Gandolfini died last night when Phyllis, one of our producers, emailed me. My first reaction - and I don't think I was alone in this - was to think no, that can't be. It's a rumor run wild on social media that will soon be corrected. But we're not going to get a correction on that one. We were devoted fans of "The Sopranos" here at FRESH AIR, which was probably obvious from the number of people involved with the show who were our guests. Unfortunately, Gandolfini was never one of them.
Our understanding was that he shied away from interviews. But we are going to listen back to some of the things that a couple of the other people from "The Sopranos" had to say about Gandolfini. And here to help us pay tribute to James Gandolfini is our TV critic David Bianculli.
David, there are so many great scenes that James Gandolfini was in. You've chosen a scene to play for us. What have you chosen?
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I've chosen the very first therapy session with Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, when here Tony Soprano, played by Gandolfini, as this mob boss, goes into therapy for the first time after he's had anxiety attacks. This is a thread that goes through the entire series and it's so perfect from the beginning because this is one of the first series I can remember watching where what isn't said is as important as what is. And the characters never show their cards. And so the dynamic from the very beginning between these two is fascinating.
GROSS: And this is from the very first episode?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
LORRAINE BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) My understanding from Dr. Cusumano, your family physician, is that you collapsed. Possibly a panic attack. You were unable to breathe.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) They said it was a panic attack, of course, all the blood work and the neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here.
BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) You don't agree that you had a panic attack? How are you feeling now?
GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) Good. Fine. Back at work.
BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) What line of work are you in?
GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) Waste management consultant. Look, it's impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.
BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) Any thoughts at all on why you blacked out?
GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) I don't know. Stress maybe.
GROSS: So that's Lorraine Bracco with Gandolfini from the first episode of "The Sopranos." David, I think, you know, we - his fans - Gandolfini's fans are feeling such a sense of loss. He was 51 when he died. And, you know, what are your thoughts about why his death is having such a huge impact on his fans? I mean we're really feeling it.
BIANCULLI: I think part of it is because of the suddenness of it. You know, he was young and there was no hint that this was coming, and so it's the shock value. But most of it I think is that we are now really instantly acknowledging what an iconic performance he gave us in terms of television. I think it's the best television performance of this current century, the most defining one that led to all the other really good performances and was something brave, bold, different move. I'd say that, you know, since Archie Bunker, what he did to comedy in terms of changing comedy, Caroll O'Connor's performance in that, James Gandolfini did in "The Sopranos."
GROSS: He was really lucky to get such a role - a role so perfectly suited for him. Not many actors get that opportunity, and it was a role he was able to keep creating and re-creating over the years, another opportunity most actors don't get. And he once said, and this was in an interview in 2001 for Newsweek, he said about his audition for "The Sopranos" that he was thinking, I can do this. But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair. Shall we say, a little more appealing to the eye.
And when I interviewed David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos"...
GROSS: ...in 2000, I asked him about casting James Gandolfini, and let's hear that excerpt.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
GROSS: Well, you're so lucky to have founded James Gandolfini, someone who has such an interesting faith to watch. And it says is kind of mercurial. I mean although I'm sure he's trying not to betray what he's thinking, you can see what he's thinking on his face. And sometimes he looks very weak and vulnerable and sometimes he's incredibly cold-blooded looking. You've cast at the center of the series, someone who is a very charismatic actor, but he's not a leading man kind of looking after. He's got a pot belly, receding hairline, pudgy face. It's not Al Pacino.
DAVID CHASE: No. I would - I always go for the actor. If the actor who came in to read for this part had been Cary Grant and it had worked, I probably would've said fine. Let's do that. But we didn't. What really we were blessed enough to have happen was that James Gandolfini came through our door. And I honestly mean this, this is, you know, without Jim Gandolfini, there is no "Sopranos." There is no Tony Soprano. He is so integral to I think a lot of the - people always ask me, what do you attribute, why do people like the show so much? Why the furor? And it's because of him. That's what - that's why the whole thing I think is so identifiable to so many people, because he just is so human and people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him, despite the heinous things he's doing on screen.
GROSS: There's something very average guy looking about him.
CHASE: No, it's more than that. I don't think he is that average. I think he is a very, very sensitive, hypersensitive man. And I think he reflects his environment in a very, very rarified way.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
CHASE: And he comes off as the regular Joe, you know, but that's - but I think what's going on there is you have a very, very - extremely emotional person, and sensitive person. And that's what Tony Soprano has become as a result of him.
GROSS: That's David Chase in 2000 talking about James Gandolfini in "The Sopranos". And of course, David Chase created "The Sopranos".
BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it reminds me of when Dustin Hoffman got the role in "The Graduate" and it sort of changed the rules for how we saw leading men. In television Gandolfini did such a great job as Tony Soprano that it's after that that you get people like Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" and Michael Chiklis in "The Shield." People who are pushing the boundaries but are complicated actors and unlike the people who were on TV 10 years before.
GROSS: The Writers Guild of America recently named "The Sopranos" the best written TV show in TV history.
GROSS: How much - I mean, we just heard from David Chase who did a lot of the writing for "The Sopranos".
GROSS: Obviously a lot of credit...
BIANCULLI: I think he's right. And he has the inside info.
BIANCULLI: I mean, here's the guy - and it was a brilliantly written show and a really well directed show.
BIANCULLI: And great cast all around. I mean, that all the pieces came together. But when the creator of it puts all of the success on the hands of its central actor, pay a little attention to that. I think David Chase is right. Cast differently, "The Sopranos" may have not had the impact. Probably would not have.
GROSS: Why don't we hear from somebody who worked very closely with James Gandolfini in "The Sopranos", and this is Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano's wife Carmella.
GROSS: And when I spoke with her in 2001, you know, I asked her about working with Gandolfini.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: When you met James Gandolfini who plays your husband Tony Soprano, had you seen him in anything else before?
EDIE FALCO: Sure. He was one of those actors you always think, oh, good. He's in this. He's great. It scared the hell out of me when I found out that he was the guy playing my husband because previous to that I'd seen him beat a bunch of people up and, you know, he'll kill me for saying this, but he played a lot of tough guys and a lot of mean guys.
And, you know, they're like, yeah, this is the man you'll be going to bed with in this show. And I thought, well, that's interesting. So I was basically afraid. But he's the one who made the initial phone calls to introduce himself when he found out who was cast and he wanted to have lunch so we could get to know each other. And I realized, OK, that's right, he's just an actor. That perhaps he's, you know, the mean guy that I've seen in all these movies. And, you know, needless to say that is very much the case. That he's a lovely guy.
GROSS: How well have you gotten to know each other? Would you prefer to know him mostly as Tony Soprano or have you really wanted to know James Gandolfini well?
FALCO: That's the thing. And, again, I don't do this on purpose but it's something I notice about the way that I have sort of done this whole thing, is that I don't know Jim very well. We don't spend a lot of time together - certainly during hiatus or when we're not working. And it is not because I don't want to. The truth is, on some level I look forward to the show ending. I mean, only on this level because I am loving it.
But, so I can actually get to know Jim a little bit because while we're working I so much prefer to have him walk onto the set and have him been Tony. Only Tony, you know? Where I don't necessarily know how Jim spent the weekend or, you know, where he went to eat and, I mean, all stuff I would normally love to know.
But I think on some level I fear it would get in the way of how pure my relationship is with him as Tony. You know? As I said, this is not something I planned but it's something I think I've done in other jobs as well. I need to keep my personal relationship with these actors kind of clean and unencumbered. So that the pretend relationship starts to take on a much fuller life for me.
GROSS: That's Edie Falco who played Tony Soprano's wife Carmella, recorded in 2001. We're paying tribute to James Gandolfini who died suddenly yesterday at the age of 51. Our TV critic David Bianculli and I will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're paying tribute to James Gandolfini who starred as Tony Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos". He died yesterday suddenly at the age of 51. And our TV critic David Bianculli is with us to help pay tribute to James Gandolfini. David, I think, you know, a problem that Gandolfini probably faced is how do you top a role like Tony Soprano? Like where do you go after that? Talk a little bit about what Gandolfini's post-"Sopranos" career was like.
BIANCULLI: He made some interesting choices. Quite recently he showed up in a David Chase movie playing the father of the protagonist. So that was an obvious second collaboration and a payback thing. But most of the choices that he made were very idiosyncratic but true to what he wanted to do. "Cinema Verite" was an HBO movie made a couple of years ago where he was playing one of the TV producers who put together the story of the Loud family.
The first TV, you know, reality show on an American family. That's a very interesting thing to choose and it's not a glamour role, not a showy role. And also, he executive produced and was the interviewer of a documentary on HBO in 2007, the year "The Sopranos" ended, called "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq", which was a really touching documentary and probably the most revealing thing I ever saw of James Gandolfini show of himself not in a role.
But when he was relating to these guys, he used his celebrity just only to get to know them. And that was - that's my biggest, best memory of him in the times that I interviewed him. He was prouder of that work, it seems, than even of "The Sopranos".
GROSS: What was it like to interview James Gandolfini? An opportunity I never had.
BIANCULLI: Well, I never had it one-on-one. There were always other people around, in terms of television critic groups. But when you were just asking questions about "The Sopranos", he was polite but didn't have an awful lot of patience. For something like "Alive Day Memories", he was wonderful. And I just think he was a guy who wasn't that comfortable with his celebrity or wasn't impressed enough with it, didn't want to talk about it.
He always seemed like a very sweet man but, you know, I can't claim to really know him at all.
GROSS: Well, the sweet man theme kind of fits in with another story I want to play from another interview. And this was an interview with the actor Jeff Daniels that I recorded last year. And most of the interview was about "The Newsroom", which he stars in, but Jeff Daniels had starred with James Gandolfini in the Broadway show "God of Carnage".
BIANCULLI: Oh, right.
GROSS: And so they were in it together and then they both left the show. There was another cast. And then after that, Jeff Daniels was asked to return, but this time he was asked to return to "God of Carnage" in the role that James Gandolfini played. So his reaction was: Sure...
GROSS: ...but first I have to call James Gandolfini. And here's what he told me about what happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
JEFF DANIELS: So I called up Gandolfini. I said, look, I've got to meet you. I've got to talk to you about something. And so he met me in New York. And he pulled up in his car and we pulled around the corner and he parked there. And, you know, suddenly I'm in a "Sopranos" episode. And I said, first of all, do you want to go back in? No, I'm done. I said OK.
They've offered me a chance to go back in. And he goes really? I said, yeah, in your role. And he just started laughing at me. And he goes: You should do it because I want to see what you do with such-and-such's speech. Because I hated that speech. I said, OK, if I have your permission I'll do it. But I don't want to screw the friendship up. And he couldn't have been nicer and more supportive, and actually came to see it.
And, you know, was very nice about it. And then we did it a year later. We did it in L.A. We brought the original Broadway cast back. And I was sincerely, genuinely very happy to go back to the other role. And I felt like that's the role I owned. Doing Jim's role I felt like I was renting it. I really did. I may have done it differently but I certainly didn't improve on what he did, that's for sure.
GROSS: Jeff Daniels recorded last year. David, any final thoughts about James Gandolfini?
BIANCULLI: I don't want to make a lot out of this, but the way that his death came so suddenly and the fact that he was so young and had so much more to give us, selfishly I feel like it's that abrupt end to "The Sopranos" all over again. You know, just this cut to black when, you know, you get confused and a little hurt and you want more. That's the way I feel about losing such a good, important actor.
GROSS: That's a really nice analogy. David, thank you for being us. David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. And I just want to say - I just wanted to send out my thank yous to James Gandolfini for such a memorable performance in "The Sopranos" and for so many years of Sundays that were made so special. Sunday nights that were made so special because of him and his colleagues on the series.
And I also want to say thank you to David Chase for realizing how talented Gandolfini was and how perfect he'd be in the role. So thank you again, David.
BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks. I agree with everything you're saying. It is as good as television gets and his acting is as good as it gets.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVING")
STEVE PERRY: (Singing) Just a small town girl living in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere. Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit, he took the midnight train going anywhere.
GROSS: We're closing with the song that ended the final episode of "The Sopranos", the episode David just referred to, "Don't Stop Believing". I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVING")
PERRY: (Singing) A singer in a smoky room, I smell the wine and cheap perfume. For a smile they can share the night. It goes on and on and on and on. Strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.