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Peter Travers on James Gandolfini: Big in Size, Big in Talent

Tony Soprano is a time-capsule character. But as an actor, the New Jersey native was more than one role

June 20, 2013 11:00 AM ET
James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini
Vera Anderson/WireImage

James Gandolfini dead. I don't buy it. Like I didn't buy that his iconic character, Tony Soprano, was the victim of a hit during the finale of The Sopranos. He was too big. Big in size. Big in talent. Big as in unbreakable. 

Gandolfini won three Emmys for The Sopranos, and an indelible place in the mind of anyone who saw him in that groundbreaking series. Tone, as the goodfellas at the Bada Bing! called him, is a time-capsule character. But Jim, as his friends called him, was more than one role. He earned a Tony nomination for playing a comically protective dad in God of Carnage on Broadway. And he was always a natural in movies. In his first major film role, in 1993's True Romance, he beat the living hell out Patricia Arquette's character, and scared you crazy. But he sucked you in first. Made you see the humanity inside this hood. 

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Admirers of film acting can see Gandolfini work his magic in Get Shorty, In the Loop, Welcome to the Rileys, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty and Not Fade Away. This is an actor who could blend tough and tender like  nobody's business. And Gandolfini kept his private business to himself. He didn't talk much about acting. He just did it. When something touched him, he gave it everything, producing two documentaries for HBO about injured Iraq War soldiers and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

They say it was Jim's heart that killed him yesterday on vacation in Italy, at a ridiculously young 51. That was also plenty big. Watching him with kids was always a hoot. Around them he felt easy, at home. Around strangers, he was wary, with a stare that could take you down at 20 paces. But if he let you in, even a little, you saw the teddy bear. Few could rival Jim in the art of telling a dirty joke. He waited for you to laugh. If you didn't, what the hell, he shrugged and grinned. It was a big grin, the kind that enveloped you, the kind that's going to leave everyone he beamed it on feeling bereft.

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Once, post-Sopranos, he took a moment to privately thank me for noticing him in Get Shorty. Jim remembered things, large and small. When I told him everyone noticed how good he was, his eyes quickly signaled, "enough." Jim could not take a compliment. He'd probably hate to hear all the praise coming his way. I saw Jim last at an awards dinner in January. Suited and tied but not uncomfortable – the man could be elegant and charming in ways unimagined at the Bada Bing! – he looked around for mischief, a chance to play a little. He found it in a pompous actor, who shall go nameless, squirming with unease and wrongly thinking Gandolfini would like to share his pain at having to mingle with the randoms. "See, how it works," said Gandolfini to this gagoots (Jim's favorite Italian putdown for, let's say, the not very smart), "is you say you're going to do something and you do it."  

That was James Gandolfini. Big in sass and spirit. The opposite of gagoots. We are all going to miss him. Big time.

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