Remembering James Gandolfini

the staff reflects …

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Pop-Break is truly saddened at the passing of actor James Gandolfini at the age of 51. Members of the staff have taken some time to reflect on our favorite Gandolfini roles and even some personal accounts of one of New Jersey’s favorite sons.

Ann Hale: I am heartbroken over the passing of acting great James Gandolfini. I have been a big fan of his since I was a young kid. Some of his most memorable roles for me were Virgil in True Romance, Eddie Poole in 8MM, and Doug Riley in Welcome to the Rileys. None of those characters, however, compared to the excellence Gandolfini brought to the character of Tony Soprano on the 1999-2007 HBO hit series, The Sopranos for which he won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes.

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My favorite moment in James Gandolfini’s career was as Tony Soprano, hands down. No one else could have pulled off such a smart and brutal mafia leader, yet loving father like he could. Tony was always one step ahead of any plots against him, always willing to do exactly what was necessary to keep his business going, no matter who he had to hurt in the process and, lets face it ladies, Tony was kind of a pimp. He had multiple attractive mistresses including: Juliana Margulies, Leslie Bega, and Annabella Sciorra. Plus, the way he discreetly killed and disposed of made man Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) was the perfect sign of just how vicious and intelligent Tony really was.

Gandolfini had that look where you could see him as a big teddy bear or a frightening giant of a man. If that isn’t Tony Soprano in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

Rest in Peace, James. Tony Soprano lives forever!

John Lawrence: The first time I remember seeing James Gandolfini in anything was the movie Money For Nothing in which he played John Cusack’s older brother. It was by no means his biggest role, but he portrayed it perfectly. Cusack’s character in the movie was a sort of shiftless slacker, and Gandolfini was everything that Cusack wasn’t. He was stern and stoic and very hard on his younger brother. I definitely enjoyed the performance.

Later on that same year, I got to catch Gandolfini in another performance. He played Virgil in True Romance. I was completely and utterly floored by his performance in this movie. He was absolutely ruthless. Even as I write this, I think back to the scene where he is just beating the living hell out of poor Patricia Arquette. I knew at that moment that either this guy was an incredible actor, or completely insane. After a few more years, I learned that it was the prior.

Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs: Back in 2006, one of my friends was a bouncer at Cheeques, a grimy go-go bar in Linden, New Jersey where the lighting’s really dim and the girls still look pretty rough. On nights that he was bouncing, my friends and I would often visit and drink for cheap, usually just popping by on our way to the night’s real destination. Imagine our surprise when one night, James Gandolfini walked into this nearly empty dive, sat down, and ordered a drink. Instantly, all the attention was pulled from the bikini-clad dancers and focused on the hulking figure occupying the end of the bar. “Is it him? It’s him! It’s Tony Soprano,” the whispers swirled and the by-all-accounts shy Gandolfini appeared uncomfortable and embarrassed as the bartender sent him a complimentary drink and a patron walked over to shake his hand. I didn’t once hear anyone refer to him by his actual name, just as Tony Soprano. This is largely because people are idiots, but also in part because Gandolfini so embodied that larger-than-life role of the titular tragic hero / charismatic sociopath that in some ways his identity became linked with that of the character. As a result, I think seeing him in the flesh felt almost otherworldly for most of those in attendance, as if a great mythical figure stepped off the page and into that shitty Linden bar – Santa Claus or, perhaps more apt, Milton’s Satan.

While it’s often hard for an actor to step out from the shadow of such an iconic role, Gandolfini kept busy in the years since the Sopranos’ finale, starring on Broadway, in supporting roles in films such as Zero Dark Thirty, and planning a return to HBO with a role in an upcoming series. Throughout his career, Gandolfini’s work was nothing short of brilliant and I always looked forward to seeing him on my screen and was truly saddened to hear of his passing today at the age of fifty-one. Judging from the internet reaction to the news, I’m not the only one who feels that way, a fact which speaks to just how much we felt like we knew him through his role as Tony Soprano. I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara’s poem, “The Day Lady Died,” about his reaction to news of Billie Holiday’s death, “sweating a lot by now and thinking of / leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” When an artist dies, we feel affected because we’re forced to remember how his or her art personally impacted our lives – in O’Hara’s case, recalling a particularly moving Holiday performance and for us today, recalling Gandolfini’s brilliant and nuanced turn in the role of a lifetime.

Bill Bodkin: The first time I ever saw James Gandolfini grace my television screen it was as Daniel Pinkwater, a homicidal KGB agent in the Charlie Sheen skydiving action flick Terminal Velocity. Yes, Terminal Velocity. While Christopher MacDonald, hot off the heels of Happy Gilmore, was billed as the film’s top villain, it was actually Gandolfini who was the main bad guy. This actor, someone I’d never seen before, captivated me. He was massive both in terms of stature and presence. He was a bright shining star in a film that was anything but. I mean let’s think about it for a second — I can remember his character’s name and his major scenes from this turd of a movie without checking out IMDb and YouTube. That’s how much of an impression he made on me.

For me, while people remember the late actor as Tony Soprano, I will always have a special place in my heart for the show-stealing supporting roles he had in major films. He overshadowed a red hot John Travolta in Get Shorty as the lovable yet violent stuntman/thug Bear. He captivated audiences as the gay hitman in the Julia Roberts/Brad Pitt rom-com caper The Mexican. He broke and warmed our hearts as the voice of Carol in Where the Wild Things Are. And he made us almost pee our pants with laughters as the brusque and blunt American General George Miller in the supremely underrated political satire In the Loop. It’s probably this role that I loved Gandolfini the most. He showed his dry and cutting sense of humor … pure Jersey.

As a New Jersey native and proud Rutgers alumni myself, it was a great feeling to see “one of my own” (despite our obvious age difference) go out there and make his stamp on countless movies and of course television. In New Jersey we wear our pride for our state on our sleeve and Gandolfini always did this and he always made sure he was seen at our alma mater. He was a huge supporter of the school and much like everyone down the shore has a “Bruce story” everyone at Rutgers had a “Tony Soprano story.” And when he won his Emmys, won his adulation and took Hollywood by storm, all of Scarlet Knight nation’s hearts swelled with pride.

God Bless, James. We’ll miss you sir.

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.