One cold winter's evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small portion of the universe ground to a halt.
It did not come completely out of the blue. Ever since "The Sopranos" had debuted in 1999, turning Tony -- anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, suburban seeker of meaning -- into a millennial pop culture icon, the character's frustration, volatility, and anger had often been indistinguishable from those qualities of James Gandolfini, the actor who brought them to life. The role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorization and long days under hot lights, but also a daily descent into Tony's psyche -- at the best of times a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst, ugly, violent, and sociopathic.
Some actors -- notably Edie Falco, who played Tony's wife, Carmela Soprano -- are capable of plumbing such depths without getting in over their heads. Blessed with a near photographic memory, Falco could show up for work, memorize her lines, play the most emotionally devastating of scenes, and then return happily to her trailer to join her regular companion, Marley, a gentle yellow Lab mix.
Not so Gandolfini, for whom playing Tony Soprano would always require to some extent being Tony Soprano. Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom box radio. An intelligent and intuitive actor, Gandolfini understood this dynamic and sometimes used it to his advantage; the heavy bathrobe that became Tony's signature, transforming him into a kind of domesticated bear, was murder under the lights in midsummer, but Gandolfini insisted on wearing it between takes. Other times, though, simulated misery became indistinguishable from the real thing -- on set and off. In papers related to a divorce filing at the end of 2002, Gandolfini's wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration. To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera -- he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head -- it was a plausible scenario.
It did not help that the naturally shy Gandolfini was suddenly one of the most recognizable men in America -- especially in New York and New Jersey, where the show filmed and where the sight of him walking down the street with, say, a cigar was guaranteed to seed confusion in those already inclined to shout the names of fictional characters at real human beings. Unlike Falco, who could slip off Carmela's French-tipped nails, throw on a baseball cap, and disappear in a crowd, Gandolfini -- six feet tall, upward of 250 pounds -- had no place to hide.
All of which had long since taken its toll by the winter of 2002. Gandolfini's sudden refusals to work had become a semiregular occurrence. His fits were passive-aggressive: he would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his TriBeCa apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused -- akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime -- that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. "All of a sudden there'd be a sushi chef at lunch," one crew member remembered. "Or we'd all get massages." It had come to be understood by all involved as part of the price of doing business, the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolfini offered.
So when the actor failed to show up for a six p.m. call at Westchester County Airport to shoot the final appearance of the character Furio Giunta, a night shoot involving a helicopter, few panicked. "It was an annoyance, but it wasn't cause for concern," said Terence Winter, the writer-producer on set that night. "You know, 'It's just money.' I mean, it was a ton of money -- we shut down [an] . . . airport. Nobody was particularly sad to go home at nine thirty on a Friday night."
Over the next twelve hours, it would become clear that this time was different. This time, Gandolfini was just gone.
From "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' " by Brett Martin. Copyright © Brett Martin, 2013. Published by The Penguin Press, a division of the Penguin group (USA) Inc.