In life, actor James Gandolfini had a rare gift of making audiences care and empathize with a ruthless sociopathic mob boss, a shadowy figure in an underground world polite society tells us to avoid at all costs.
Yet Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano character was as charming as they come, whether it was in a disarming moment with his children or wife, stuffing dollar bills in one of his stripper’s G-strings at Bada Bing! or crushing the skull of some hapless mook or rival goon.
David Chase and the otherworldly acting of Gandolfini himself, a man who gave nuanced performance after nuanced performance, every week for six seasons on HBO. He never phoned it in, and the bear of a man behind one of television’s most talked-about and sometimes most-watched shows in history, had even occasional watchers riveted with a steely-eyed snarl or a sadistic belly laugh.
It’s the lasting legacy of that performance, along with a culturally game-changing TV series to showcase Gandolfini’s talents that has his sudden death being so widely reported over the last couple of days. He’ll always be known as Tony Soprano and “The Sopranos” as a milestone of what can be done on the small screen will never be forgotten.
Without giving it much thought, though, it was surprising to see how much airtime Gandolfini’s death has been eating up. Tony Soprano has been on permanent hiatus from the zeitgeist since a wildly disappointing and cryptic season finale ended the show’s run in 2007. But the story of his death has been reported as if Gandolfini was at the height of his fame.
There might be more to our reaction to his death and the manner in which it is being presented than meets the eye.
This is going to sound harsh, but it very well could be the fat factor, and because Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was so real and so human to many of us, we might be unwittingly identifying the fragility of life in an obese state with his cult of celebrity.
As of Thursday, it was believed Gandolfini died suddenly from a massive heart attack in his hotel room in Rome, where he was on vacation with his family.
Gandolfini was a big man, which was part of the Soprano allure, where overcompensation and insecurity played out in his, similarly, subtle and over-the-top portrayal of the oversexed, overstressed and especially overweight mob boss prone to panic attacks.
In real life it was said the actor struggled mightily with his weight, which he wore around his chest and abdomen in the most heart-unfriendly way possible. It’s difficult to find actual estimates on how much he weighed, but it would not be a bad guess to say anywhere from 320 to 350 pounds.
When you have created a persona and a character so vivid, so rich in human frailty, whom millions of people followed and felt like they connected to, it’s not a leap of faith to see the link to the fear of what being obese can mean to someone’s life span through the eyes of Tony Soprano/James Gandolfini.
It’s another part of that Everyman ideal Gandolfini personified, made even more real with the unreal dilemma that 34 percent of all adult Americans and 17 percent of all children are considered obese.
Just two days ago, the American Medical Association declared obesity as a disease, effectively defining the condition as one in which 78 million of us require medical treatment.
That is a whole lot of us who can clearly identify with the prospect of dropping dead at age 51 from a massive heart attack, taking into consideration factors on top of morbid obesity.
As an actor, James Gandolfini’s goal in life — validated by three Emmys, a Tony and multiple other awards — was to connect with people, make them feel something, anything.
Now, it seems in death he is continuing to do that, to take a serious health threat, a national epidemic, some would say, that affects one in every three of us, and make us feel something, anything, only he had to die to do it.