Thursday, June 27, 2013

On James Gandolfini

Funeral services were held today in New York City for James Gandolfini, the actor who deserved all the accolades he got for his portrayal of mobster and family man Tony Soprano in HBO's groundbreaking series, The Sopranos.  Are you a fan of classic film stars?  With his commitment and skill and honesty in his work, hard work that he made seem simple, Gandolfini was like a Spencer Tracy of prime time television.
It's funny about fame.  I'm looking at photos of the funeral service that were posted on a network news website.  Others who were also in the cast of The Sopranos gathered to pay respects to the late Gandolfini.  This definitely will be a lead story in tonight's national entertainment news.  Not just nationally.  It'll be a lead story outside of America too.

Four of the the best days of my entire career involved work on that series.  I had a bit part in two very good episodes and, before each taping my small acting roles, I assembled with everyone else for a table read of the entire script.  When Gandolfini became internationally famous as Tony Soprano, my mind frequently went back that first table read.  My mind went right back to that reading again this morning when I saw those photos of the funeral service.

My first Under 5 came in the show's first season.  An "Under 5" is a role that has no more than five lines.  TV viewers had never heard of The Sopranos because it had yet to premiere on HBO when we had that first table read.  If you know New York City, we were booked to do the read-through one weekday evening in the SoHo area.  I lived in Chelsea so I walked over the location at Prince and Broadway, right across the street from a Dean & DeLuca store.  There was a group of actors standing on a corner and chatting.  I recognized Gandolfini and Michael Imperioli from my neighborhood.  I lived near casting offices and a couple of talent agencies.  I'd see them a lot on my way to auditions.  They were practically part of the community.  Chelsea was still wonderfully working class in the early and mid-1990s.  Some actors in that HBO cast were folks I'd seen a lot on the streets, walking around and going about their business without being bothered.  When the room was open for our session, I realized that the actors chatting on the corner outside were also there for the table reading.

Those same folks who were just hanging out on the corner of Prince and Broadway, waiting to go in for a 6:00 table read, those same folks who weren't getting a second glance from pedestrians who walked by them, had no idea they were on the brink of fame.  Two years later, they wouldn't have that anonymity in public.  Today, they're stars at a fellow star's funeral.  The effects of fame and the changes it brings.

Gandolfini was a seriously good actor.  Sometimes, I think his stardom as Tony Sopranos eclipsed his film work.  He was an actor who could become another character, totally non-Tony Soprano, with an adjustment to his physical carriage and a different cadence to his recognizable and unexpectedly high voice.  He was a big bear of a guy.  Before he spoke, you kind of expected a Lee Marvin-esque voice to come out.  What did come out was different and he knew how to play that instrument to great effect.  Watch him in the Coen Brothers black and white film, The Man Who Wasn't There, as "Big Dave"...

....and as Winston, the gay hit man looking to meet a nice guy in The Mexican starring Julia Roberts...

...and for proof of his solid comedy skills, rent In The Loop, a political satire about the business of war.
I really dig the two movies he did with John Travolta.  Gandolfini was the doofy L.A. thug in Get Shorty...
...and one of the New York detectives working on a murder case in Lonely Hearts.
He was a knock-out in God of Carnage on Broadway.  I was lucky enough to see him in that comedy about class and manners.
I had a Broadway limited-run wish for James Gandolfini.  At the heart of the play I wanted to see him do is a story about freedom from tyranny and getting smart to the fact that one's rights are being abused. I wanted to see Gandolfini play the other side of the mobster persona.  Play the comedy side and make a point while doing so in a revival of Born Yesterday.  The rich crooked boyfriend of a dumb blonde ex-chorus girl keeps her entertained with material things, but he's slowly taken away her personal rights and bullies her.  While they're staying in Washington, DC, where we will buy a congressman's favor, she gets wise and comes to her own Declaration of Independence.  Broderick Crawford played uncouth Harry in the film.  Judy Holliday repeated her star-making Broadway role in the film and won the Best Actress of 1950 Academy Award.

I'd have loved to see James Gandolfini play Harry.

Gandolfini left us with the some good work -- and not just in The Sopranos.

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