Of the many qualities that James Gandolfini brought to the role of Tony Soprano, his sad eyes were the most important. No matter what awful thing he did, those eyes were windows to his soul and made you feel sorry for him.
After Gandolfini’s untimely death, Sopranos creator David Chase paid tribute to him saying: “He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time.
“A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”
That quote says it all about the man and his talents, but I’ll say a bit more because Gandolfini and his performance as Tony Soprano has been such a huge part of my adult life. The Sopranos will probably always be my favourite TV show, I genuinely think it stands up as an American cultural masterpiece.
As the star of the show, Gandolfini was obviously a huge part of what made it so great, and not just for his sad eyes. Everything about the way he played Tony added layers to a character that, from the start to the end, you couldn’t say for sure that you understood.
He was a family man who would do anything for those he loved, but would screw them over at the drop of a hat. He was a Family Man who outwardly reveled in the lifestyle but inwardly hated it all and himself. He wanted to be the all-American Gary Cooper strong, silent type, but went to a shrink to unburden himself.
We saw his character through Dr Melfi, and even she couldn’t be certain at the end that any of the humanity he showed to her was real or whether it was all just the act of a sociopath. And neither could we, and that was as much down to the complexity of Gandolfini’s performance as the genius of the writing.
One of my favourite storylines in the show was after Tony was shot by his Uncle Junior and slipped into a coma. While he was out of it, his subconscious took him to an alternate life, out of the Mafia, and Gandolfini made what could have been a weird diversion into a heartbreaking few episodes, culminating in this amazing scene…
That was Tony Soprano, a man who you could both despise and love, fear and want to give a comforting hug to. I don’t know of anyone who could have portrayed him the way James Gandolfini did, and that is because he was an incredible actor. He may have left us too young, but he left behind something perfect and that is more than most of us can say.