I’m glad I stood next to James Gandolfini for five minutes after a Nets’ game a few years ago, to ascertain for myself that he was not Tony Soprano, not really. He had the wariness, the watchfulness, of an artist, not a gangster.
Gandolfini and his cast mates and the great David Chase made me commit to that show. I had not watched any series since M*A*S*H ended, but I planned my Sunday evenings around the Sopranos. (Driving through Hazard, Ky., a decade ago, asking motel managers if the rooms had HBO.)
I do a riff on why Tony is my role model – I’m sure my wife is quite sick of it. He is modern man. He loves his wife, loves his kids, has a large family and takes his work seriously. (I then launch into the part of the riff about a hot psychiatrist and a hot car saleswoman and an intriguing one-legged Russian home aide -- who dumps him!)
By the weirdest of Chasian ironies, Svetlana was a point of reference in The New York Times on the same day Gandolfini’s photo was on the front page for the worst possible reason. A letter to the editor about electronic surveillance and liberty quoted Svetlana as an admirer of America.
Tony made me worry about his health. Glimpses of him in those déclassé sleeveless undershirts or in bed or at the pool made me worry that he was having too many meals with too many associates – all that cheese, all that pasta, all that meat, all those desserts. Basta gia, enough already.
Were there too many rehearsals around those tables? Did Artie send over too many antipasti? All I knew was that I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them, the people or the plates. David Chase and his associates found a universe full of amazing characters who moved from real life to the screen for that one role.
Robert Altman did the same thing, envisioning Jim Bouton, the pitcher, as a fugitive who needs to be whacked; finding musicians I had met in the bars and corridors of Music City and putting them in his movie Nashville, and casting Virginia Madsen as a stunning red-headed angel of death, and getting Lindsay Lohan to perform what I fear will be the high point of her acting career in Prairie Home Companion.
Chase and his people did the same thing with musicians and civilians – put them in a series with Tony Soprano. He exposed Tony’s demons early – witnessing his father cutting off a finger of a deli operator who has not paid his debts. Tony’s childhood anxieties have lasted, linking the finger and the spicy ham, capicola, pronounced gabagool in the Neapolitan dialect. In the series, when Gandolfini referred to his terrors, he would say, “You know, you know, the gabagool.” After that, there really is no point watching anything else, ever.
I sometimes saw James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano and I imagined a season ending in which Tony would gather up his family and go to Boca Raton and enter a witness protection program. I saw the potential for a limited form of remorse, the chance of living another life. That was my hope for my role model.
The last we saw of Tony Soprano, he was in a restaurant with his wife and son, about to have a meal. Then the screen faded black. Everybody has an interpretation. Mine is: Tony ordered spaghetti puttanesca and a couple of cannoli and lived a long and peaceful life, somehow. I wished nothing less for James Gandolfini. Addio, maestro.