When I think of James Gandolfini, who died on Wednesday at age 51, it’s always his heavy breathing. No actor has ever made more of the art of respiration. If you’ve ever seen “The Sopranos,” David Chase’s groundbreaking HBO drama, you know what I’m talking about: The weighted exhale, each wheeze punctuating Tony Soprano’s lumbering movements like a slow, ticking clock. Listening to each breath was akin to entering the mind of the troubled mobster — quick breaths in and out meant he was about to blow his top; long, drawn out breaths meant the family was out of the house, and he could raid the fridge for Carmela’s leftovers in peace.
Because of his towering, sometimes frightening, presence on screen, Gandolfini’s subtlety as an actor is often overlooked. As a character actor for most of his career (he booked the role on “The Sopranos” after a decade playing thugs and mobsters) he understood how to make a lot out of a little. His physicality — each slow hand movement, heavy step, and sullen stare across the back office of the Bada Bing — was concentrated and focused, a mountain of small moments that simmered like a pressure cooker ready to explode. And when he did explode, those big moments were visceral because they carried the weight of everything that came before.
Without Gandolfini’s performance in “The Sopranos,” television would not be what it is today. The descent of a character like Walter White in “Breaking Bad” wouldn’t have been possible before the existence of Tony Soprano, not to mention Don Draper, the lost soul of “Mad Men,” who is essentially Tony Soprano a few decades in the past. It’s not that Gandolfini allowed his character to be disliked — although that is part of it — but that he understood that under the anger and despicable behavior was a vast well of fear and sadness. “The Sopranos” is often said to be the first television show to glorify the anti-hero, but classifying it in this context is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not that we cheer for the bad guy, but that we understand that there is something in that bad guy that exists in all of us.
Tony Soprano was the role of a lifetime, and Gandolfini seemed to understand this. In his film roles following the series, he didn’t chase leading man parts, but opted to take on supporting roles where he was able to expand his range beyond the suburbs of New Jersey. The actor’s underrated turn in Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” showed he had serious comedic chops, while his brief-but-terrifying role as Mickey, the wayward hitman in “Killing Them Softly,” is a master class in nuance that manages to seep into the pores of the film.
Over his career, Gandolfini liked to stress that he was just another guy doing his job, the son of working class parents from New Jersey. There was nothing special about him. “You don’t ask a truck driver about his job,” he famously told a reporter. But whether he liked it or not, he was more than these humble roots. What made him special was that through a single breath, a drop of the eyelids, or a chilly glance, he was able to convey an oceanic wave of human emotion recognizable to all of us. It was why we rooted for him, even when we shouldn’t have. There are few like him, and that’s why he’ll be sorely missed.