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Tony Soprano: Looking Back

James Gandolfini, as mob boss Tony Soprano, in

James Gandolfini, as mob boss Tony Soprano, in an episode from the first season of the HBO cable television mob series, "The Sopranos." (1999) (Credit: AP )

James Gandolfini, certainly one of the greatest actors in TV history, captured a character so complete and so alive and so vivid — Tony Soprano — that it's hard for most of us to accept the fact that the man who portrayed him is gone.

 Yup, Tony Soprano was the role — and not just a role, but a cultural force so profound and powerful that for a moment early in the last decade it even seemed to warp the creative process of the entire television business, as if a massive gravitational force was acting upon it. The big commercial networks tried to copy "The Sopranos'" alchemy and by association, Gandolfini, reasoning that audiences suddenly, inexplicably yearned for conflicted mob bosses who struggled with their daily family crises as much as they did their illegal — and lethal — pursuits.

The networks, of course, failed and HBO's classic emerged from its six-season run — from 1999 to 2007 — as a stand-alone triumph, and by critical consent, the finest series in television history, with its leading man TV's greatest protagonist.  

But the effect lingered and we feel it to this day, in series as diverse as FX's "Sons of Anarchy" and "Breaking Bad" and even "Mad Men,"  with their conflicted — deeply sordidly conflicted — leading men.

"He was a genius," said series creator David Chase in a statement.  "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. I remember telling him many times, 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart" There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For Deborah and Michael and Lilliana this is crushing [his family.]. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."

 How to define that "alchemy?" On man, who knows, really. Art isn't exactly something that can be reduced to a few words written on a blog in the press of a deadline. It's worth I suppose noting - redundantly perhaps - that television is a collaborative medium. Chase, and Terence Winter, and Mitchell Burgess and Frank Renzulli (in the early going) and many others wrote the words while superlative directors like Timothy Van Patten and John Patterson blocked out the scenes and structured the episodes...and of course that incredible supporting cast, lead by the  first among equals, Edie Falco....All of them enriched his performance, all of them added to his artistry (a word he would despise but I use anyway.)  But I think at the end of the day, this terribly sad day, it all comes down to something that was inside him, something that was fundamentally, elementally  who he was.  A fine actor who summoned that "something" and yet had a healthy, even repugnant, disregard for that "something."   Hence, conflict.   

Of course we are all heartbroken and shocked, but sometimes the best way to deal with that (and sometimes not, but what the hell, let's forge ahead  anyway) are the clips. They are out there and these precious few will remind you — however briefly — what the world  has lost: A transcendently gifted actor. You may have loved Tony, may have loathed him — an exemplar of the cruelty that one man can inflict upon another. But we can all agree on one thing: The actor who portrayed him created one of the most unforgettable characters of our lives; to say this talent will be missed beggars the very meaning of the sentiment.   

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Tags: James Gandolfini , The Sopranos , David Chase , HBO

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