James Gandolfini, killing them softly

The 12-million viewers who tuned into the final episode of "The Sopranos" in 2007 thought there was a good chance Tony Soprano would get whacked. There was an irrefutable logic to such a denouement: the mob boss had cheated death so many times; the HBO show was done; its brilliant creator, David Chase, was a stickler for classical dramatic theory; and somehow gutting the sole protagonist like a Jacobean-Jersey tragic hero was, really, the only satisfying way to end. We all knew that.

But Chase and his writers demurred, preferring an ambivalent fade to black, offering Tony Soprano a kind of wobbly immortality. No doubt there was a desire by these over-achievers to confound expectations. But whether it was conscious or not, no reasonable person could doubt that these writers ran away from that ending because they knew that their audience did not really want to see anything bad happen to any character played by James Gandolfini, because that would be like something terrifying happening to ourselves.

Gandolfini had found himself cast in an absurdly violent universe full of potential cliches. But over eight years in his most famous role, he created a character so astonishingly empathetic, the travails of organized crime easily became a metaphor for the quotidian struggles of the middle ages of life, when one is variously whacked in the head by the demands of family, annoyances at work, aging parents and the sense of the power and possibility of youth slowly but surely slipping away.

Perhaps that's why Gandolfini's death from a heart-attack on Wednesday at the age of 51, hit so many of us so hard. It felt like the cruelty of real life had done what the writers, the surrogate gods, on "The Sopranos" knew not to do with their charge. A gentle giant had been cut down while his back was turned.

At what point an actor comes to his or her craft matters. Start out young, pretty, entitled and smug, and one can easily remain in the thrall of those deadening priorities. Gandolfini had done other things with his big hands first: bricklayer, bouncer, truck driver. And yet he'd not just fallen into the profession but had arrived by way of studying, albeit partly by accident, the acting technique associated with the late Sanford Meisner.

Meisner's method teaches an actor to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances -- it does not matter how surreal those circumstances may be. Even if a fish is singing at him or her, a Meisner-trained actor understands the importance of opening the door into a scene with nothing whatsoever prepackaged, staying in the moment, listening to whomever (or whatever) is the partner in the scene and reacting accordingly. Spontaneously. With truth as a guide.

More than anything else, that study, combined with his talent, explains why Gandolfini's scenes in all of his work always felt so astoundingly alive. It was that way in "God of Carnage" on Broadway. When Gandolfini walked out on stage, trailing the baggage of Tony Soprano along with him, he instantly served notice that the past was the past and that everything in this otherwise ordinary play was now up for grabs. One did not know how any scene he was in was going to go on this particular night. And thus routine was banished and excitement took over.

Of course, not every Meisner actor can do what Gandolfini could. Plenty of actors have rage down cold. A smaller group knows how to be lovable. Very, very few can play at the outer limits of both those extremes, allowing for a character who evokes terror in the viewer, even as she would enjoy taking him out for coffee.

Gandolfini's range was astonishingly broad and flexible; perhaps even peerlessly so among his generation of American actors. In a single episode of "The Sopranos," he could easily go from the gentle family man, puffed up with twinkly pride at his daughter's little achievements, to a cold-blooded killer with dead eyes and lips smiling at the smell of blood. How did I miss this particular trait in that preceding scene?, we all used to think every week, marveling in our living rooms at the drastic change in this hypnotic character. Well, we missed it, time and again, because Gandolfini proffered truth as the changing circumstances of life demand.

Gandolfini, it always seemed, was not much interested in real-world power, he was a private man who preferred a quiet life away from the red-carpets and the over-articulated Hollywood and Broadway players. That's another trait of those lucky enough not to find fame too young. Gandolfini's shyness was evident from his work, his ease at slipping into the moments when a kid or a wife or a neighbor had the upper-hand, forcing his characters to skulk, unwilling or unable to adequately fight back. You can that natural gentility all over his performance in the aptly titled 2012 movie, "Killing Them Softly," which could have served as his professional epitaph.

Over the next few days, the evidence likely will show, plenty of men of a certain age will schedule a long-overdue physical or a cholesterol test with their doctors, or go for a run, or pick out a lighter sandwich at the deli. Gandolfini was famous all over the world for playing an unspeakably violent mob boss, a life that most of us boring saps could not even properly imagine. Yet his death feels like we have lost one of our own, one who struggled with that which we also struggled, one who could play the competing stresses we feel every day. If he could not last, then how can we?


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