"I get it!" James Gandolfini yells at the desert sun at the end of The Sopranos, back in 2007. It's a moment that brings the whole Tony Soprano story together – the New Jersey mob boss out in the West, tripping on peyote, waking up with yet another hired sexpot gumar. He's spent the night in the desert, trying to sleep off the nightmare his murderous life has become. But when he squints into the morning sky, weeping and giggling at the same time, you can tell he doesn't get a thing. Tony Soprano sees the light, but he's still in the dark, because darkness is what he's made out of.
Gandolfini, who died yesterday at 51, could have made that "I get it!" a touching moment. But he made sure it became a scary moment instead. Those were his specialty. The Sopranos kept going for a two-episode coda, but that desert epiphany in "Kennedy and Heidi" was where Tony Soprano's saga truly ended. Gandolfini was perfect in the role of a guilt-crazed family-man mobster. "I'm a neurotic mess," he told Rolling Stone's Chris Heath in our 2001 cover story. "I'm really basically a 260-pound Woody Allen."
No other actor in TV history has been called on to do the heavy lifting Gandolfini had to do. All those years, all those intricate calibrations of charm and evil, subtly building up the character of Tony Soprano with six seasons of slow-burn menace. It was a marathon feat of long-term detailed storytelling, the kind of thing nobody had attempted. Others followed – Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage, practically the entire cast of Mad Men. But they didn't have to prove it could be done. That was Gandolfini's job.
The first time the world got a real look at Gandolfini, it was in the 1993 classic True Romance. He's a mob hitman threatening Brad Pitt, the stoner sage slumped on the couch with his bong. Gandolfini steals the scene with his sparkly smile, his shiny suit, his long eyelashes. Downright pretty –especially weird since he's standing next to Pitt. But the smile never slips. He doesn't show any muscle in this scene – he doesn't have to. As an actor, he knew his smile was more terrifying than any weapon. When he backs away, letting Brad Pitt believe he outsmarted the bad guy ("Don't condescend me, man!"), the grin leaves a whiff of danger in the room. Hollywood still wasn't sure who Gandolfini was – but anyone could see that smile was trouble.
If we're living in a golden age of TV now – and we are – it's because other actors followed Gandolfini's lead, just as writers learned how much they could demand of their performers. It seems strange to remember now, but outside the HBO offices, expectations for The Sopranos barely exceeded room temperature. The ads pimped it as a zany comedy. ("If one family doesn't kill him . . . the other will!") Yet Gandolfini provided the dramatic heft it needed to carry that first season. He didn't settle for shtick –even the really great kind of shtick, the "you should read Tomato Sauce for Your Ass!" slapstick most fans would have gladly accepted. (Thank God The Sopranos only tried one Columbus Day episode.) He summed up the ba-da-bing banality of evil.
Gandolfini did some of his most intense work with throwaway lines, as in the funeral scene where he mumbles: "Aah, whaddya gonna do?" (Which funeral? Exactly. There were so many goddamn funerals on The Sopranos and that was the goddamn point.) "Whaddya gonna do" was his all-purpose conversation-ender: It could be a curse, a eulogy, a death sentence. It could be Buddhist resignation; it could be a Catholic shrug of distaste for working too hard at anything. Gandolfini kept it ambiguous – he liked it that way, because he knew it made Tony Soprano that much scarier.
James Gandolfini changed TV forever. A whole new style of ambitious story-telling took over, thanks to David Chase's vision for The Sopranos. But it only became possible because Gandolfini was the actor who could pull it off – week after week, year after year. He got it.