The don is dead, long live the don

Had James Gandolfini lived longer, Tony Soprano would have been just one of his many other memorable character roles – as it is, the don of them all is enough

If James Gandolfini, who has died in Italy at the age of 51, had lived for another few decades then, when writing an appreciation, we would have found it a great deal easier to avoid focusing on his most famous role.

A bulky man, whose face always seemed to telegraph approaching rage, he was the sort of actor the entertainment industry savours. Pretty-faced leading men drift in and out of fashion; this year’s Biff gives way to next year’s Cory, but Hollywood always needs charismatic character actors.

Just watch Gandolfini scowling as the permanently aggrieved general in Armando Iannucci's satirical gem In the Loop. Catch his boozy hit-man in Andrew Dominik's recent, undervalued Killing Them Softly. No contemporary actor was better at combining menace with existential depression.

All of which brings us neatly to The Sopranos. It is strange to recall that when the HBO series premiered in 1999, the main hook was that it focused on a mobster who was undergoing psychoanalysis. The show sounded like the high-concept for a low- brow comic movie. In fact, it was the high-concept for a low-brow comic movie: Analyse This, starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, emerged in the same year.

It didn’t take long for viewers to realise that David Chase, the series creator, had considerably loftier ambitions. Using enormously long story arcs, allowing minor characters to gradually drift upstage, the series changed how studios and the public thought about television drama. At the heart of it all was one of the medium’s great characters.

More particularly, Tony Soprano, chief of a colourful New Jersey mob dynasty, was one of television's most interesting and influential fathers. For decades, the "head of the family" was represented as an upstanding fellow in a hat who patiently suffered the chattering of his silly wife and the comic mishaps of his adorable children.

Homer Simpson – flawed, frustrated, lovable – hacked away at the template in the early 1990s. At the turn of the century, Tony Soprano – flawed, frustrated, psychopathic – trampled the classic model into the dust.

The notion of millennial anxiety may have been an unconvincing media invention, but Gandolfini’s performance as Tony went some way towards convincing us that those pontificating columnists were on to something.

Manifestation of male aggression
Feminists could regard him as a manifestation of male aggression. Self-pitying middle-aged men could sympathise with his inability to escape the imagined restrictions of suburban conformity. Red-meat eaters understood his resistance to all this psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo.

The left detected comments on the corruption at the heart of late capitalism but, more than anything else, he carried the massed anxieties of modern parenthood on his enormous shoulders. Which dad wouldn’t want the power to murder his teenage daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend?

Appropriately for somebody who went on to play the era’s most famous New Jerseyite, James Gandolfini, from an impeccably Italian, working-class background, grew up in the Garden State. He worked as a bouncer, a truck driver and a nightclub manager before drifting into the world of acting.

“I dabbled a little bit in acting in high school and then I forgot about it completely,” he later said. “And then, at about 25, I went to a class. I don’t think anybody in my family thought it was an intelligent choice. I don’t think anybody thought I’d succeed, which is understandable. I think they were just happy that I was doing something.”

He did not exactly explode on to the scene, but director Tony Scott found him a tiny role in The Last Boy Scout and then cast him as a memorable thug in True Romance.

By the time the Sopranos came around, he had established a reputation as an essential background heavy. Seek him out in (for Tony Scott again) Crimson Tide and Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty. If Chase and his team hadn't circled his name, Gandolfini would, like Warren Oates and Ward Bond before him, surely have remained a key supporting player of his time.

Like those earlier actors, he was not the most versatile of performers – try to imagine him frolicking with Jennifer Aniston in a light comedy – but he was a master at his specialist field: the lumbering wad of confused middle-aged testosterone. When The Sopranos broke, he achieved a rare class of fame for a character performer. He was no longer "that bloke". He now had a name.

A prince among courtiers
For all the supposed emasculation of the American chap – something Tony Soprano occasionally acknowledged – film and television still needed the wheezing, snorting, beer-drinking bloke. Gandolfini may have secured few leads in the years after The Sopranos, but he was a prince among attendant courtiers.

In the last year, he turned up to good effect as a CIA supremo in Zero Dark Thirty. In 2014, he appears opposite Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in Michaël R Roskam's take on Dennis Lehane's story Animal Rescue. A glance at Roskam's Bullhead or at Lehane's Gone Baby Gone (or at any of Hardy's work) will confirm that the project looks likely to sweat like a manly man after some very manly work.

Character actors don’t age like leading men. Had his heart not stopped so soon, Gandolfini could have kept working into his twilight years and Tony Soprano might have ended up being just another role in a busy CV.

As things stand, it towers over everything else he achieved.