A week and a half ago the actor James Gandolfini, forever know as Tony Soprano of the HBO TV show The Sopranos, passed away. Some have said The Sopranos was the best TV show in history. That’s a pretty lofty statement, and I don’t usually get into statements of “the greatest” in most things, but I would have a hard time arguing against the claim.
First let me highlight the theme song, a song sung by a group named Alabama 3 or sometimes known as A3. Until today I never knew who sung this and never heard of A3. And to my surprise this is a British group. They sound so American, the song so American R&B based, and the theme of the song is on guns and violence, themes that are not typically British but are certainly American. What a great song.
I loved The Sopranos. It was a local show about local types. Yes they were from New Jersey, but first and foremost they were Italian-Americans from the east coast. I came from that world—no not the mafia world, though unfortunately the mafia exists. I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. As far as I can tell there isn’t much difference between those from New Jersey and those from Brooklyn, or any other part of the New York area. I know the show glorified mafia life; I know it portrayed Italian-Americans in their worst element. I don’t like this association Italian-Americans have gotten. Only a tiny number of Italian-Americans are involved in the mafia, but you wouldn’t get that from the movies and TV. I resisted watching the show at the beginning in a sort of protest, but once I watched a clip here and there and then an episode, I was hooked.
The script writing, the acting, the filming, it was all top notch for TV. Though all the actors were very good, James Gandolfini made the show. From the Washington Post obit:
“He was a genius,” said “Sopranos” creator David Chase. “Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.”
The premise was to show the inner side of such a rough and uncouth gangster, and that required a wide range of acting skills. Gandolfini never disappointed, and on the strength of his performance has been called one of the greatest of actors. I don’t know enough about acting and actors to confirm that, but his characterization is right on the money. I know the type.
The show was on Sunday nights and I remember going to work on Mondays and having the filthiest profanity spill out of my mouth. Kerry, a young female engineer that was on my project at the time, asked me one Monday, “What’s with your language?” I apologized and had to say, “I’m sorry. I watched The Sopranos last night.” I don’t recall ever waiting all week long to watch a TV show except for this one.
Gandolfini died way too young. I was actually surprised we were the same age. I pictured him as older. Supposedly his drinking and epicurean life style caught up with him. I have friends from childhood who have the same unhealthy habits, going out and drinking six, eight, ten drinks, and eating rich multi-course dinners. Heck, even breakfast and lunch aren’t a reason for asceticism. Every once in a while we’ll go out and celebrate a birthday. The restaurant clip below reminds me of one of get-togethers.
Finally it took me some thinking as to why I identified with him so much. Heck most Italian-Americans don’t know squat about the mafia. I don’t. Was it simply we grew up with similar accents, Sunday dinners, and street ball games? Then I came across this biographical note of his early life in Wikipedia:
Gandolfini was born in Westwood, New Jersey. His mother, Santa, a high school lunch lady, was born in the United States of Italian ancestry and raised in Naples, Italy. His father, James Joseph Gandolfini, Sr., a native of Borgotaro, Italy, was a bricklayer and cement mason and was later the head custodian at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey. James, Sr. earned a Purple Heart in World War II. Gandolfini's parents were devout Roman Catholics and spoke Italian at home. Due to the influence of his parents, he developed a strong sense of being Italian and visited Italy regularly.
No wonder. Just change a few of those details and you would have my story, or the story of one of my cousins, or the story of one of my friends.
Here are clips from some of the best moments from the show. Warning: the clips below have profanity, violence, and a brief view of nudity. This was not a show for children.
I had always hoped for a re-union episode, and perhaps a return series. Now that will never be. Eternal rest onto you Mr. Gandolfini.