James Gandolfini: A Brave Actor, a Tender Man

James Gandolfini: A Brave Actor, a Tender Man
James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden in "God of Carnage" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in 2009.
(© Joan Marcus)

In Yasmina Reza’s Broadway comedy “God of Carnage,” one of the characters mordantly observes, “People struggle until they’re dead.”

James Gandolfini, who died at age 51 in Rome on June 19, certainly had his struggles. Among the tributes and appreciations that poured in following the shocking news was some mention of problems with alcohol. But among the actor’s triumphs was his iconic Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” — the HBO series that changed the face of television — and his acclaimed performance as an embattled husband, father, and household goods wholesaler in “God of Carnage.” The 2009 smash hit marked his return to Broadway where, before winning fame on “The Sopranos,” he’d played minor roles in 1992’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and 1995’s “On the Waterfront.” He was welcomed back with a Tony Award nomination for his richly-textured performances, one of several nods that the production received, including ones for his three co-stars, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis, and the director Matthew Warchus.   


“Goodbye to a champion of a man,” said Harden in a statement. “He was a great partner, masterful actor, and a loving, generous human being.”

“If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in a foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine,” said Daniels, adding that the disciplined actor never missed one of his 320 performances in “Carnage.”

There was a bravery to that. Shortly after being cast in the production, Gandolfini admitted to Warchus that he was “terrified” that he would not be able to step up to the demands of the play. In it, two seemingly civilized, smug, and affluent couples descend into a vicious battle when they are brought together over a schoolyard altercation between their two sons. One of the boys has smashed in the teeth of the other and the spouses meet to discuss the appropriate punishment.  Gandolfini played Michael, the least educated of the four who at one point in the ensuing melee gladly admits to being “a Neanderthal.”  Earlier, he got huge laughs from the audience in describing how he had thrown his son’s pesky pet hamster into the street to the horror of Daniels’s high-powered lawyer, Davis’s wealth manager, and Harden’s scholar. Wrote John Lahr in The New Yorker, Gandolfini “brilliantly manages his character’s arc from genteel to goniff, earning every moment of Reza’s fun.”

Warchus told CNN that shortly after rehearsals for the show began, Gandolfini “pleaded” with the director to let him leave the production.  Used to dealing with such anxieties in actors, Warchus refused and coaxed an extraordinary performance from Gandolfini. “He was just so good at emotion,” said Warchus. “A very passionate man and a very, very tender man. I really loved and admired him a great deal.”

After the play opened to rave reviews, Gandolfini appeared along with his co-stars on “Theater Talk,” a PBS show hosted by Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins. “I was shell-shocked, I don’t know why,” he said of the challenge of creating Michael. “I felt out of sorts. And when Matthew said, ‘This is the way you’re supposed to feel, don’t drive yourself insane about it,’ that was very helpful.” In the course of that television appearance, Gandolfini was the most humble and taciturn of the group, although he was the most celebrated among them. Part of it was his shyness with the press. He made no secret of his dislike for the sudden attention that was showered upon him in the wake of the success of “The Sopranos.” Coming back to the theater was a way to reclaim his bona fides as an actor first, a celebrity second.   

Warchus recalled the delight that registered on Gandolfini’s face when during the run of “God of Carnage,” a patron in a restaurant where they were dining hailed the actor with, “Hi Jim!” 

“See that,” Gandolfini said. “He called me ‘Jim.’ Not ‘Tony.’”

“I can’t help thinking of all the projects I would loved to have worked with Jim on,” said Warchus, ruefully.   

Watch video on Gandolfini's career on the small and big screen: