Feuilleton about the heroes of “The Sopranos” series, through the characters they portrayed and their life stories. For the end of feuilleton – the most magnificent character in the history of television – Tony Soprano, performed by the immortal James Gandolfini.
Back in 2013, on June 19th, my phone rings early in the morning. On the other side of the line is my friend Nemanja, and he informs me – Tony Soprano has died. A moment that was then exempted from time and space in my life. I bury my head in the pillow again, not wanting to rationally accept the news I just heard, much less get up. Ratio? The actor, James Gandolfini, died, and with him, the character Tony Soprano, whom he played in The Sopranos series, and I feel so empty that if I snapped my fingers, an echo would ring out in my gut as if someone very close to me had passed away.
Emotions. When it comes to them, everything is possible, and then you don’t analyze the circumstances in all their magic, exceptionality, you don’t ask for the reasons, but you surrender to them, and you become their slave.
The Sopranos series is a great destiny, with one unsettling vortex at the epicenter – Tony Soprano, the greatest character in the history of television. A million details, dreams, sets of circumstances, and coincidences, combined became the perfectionist machine of director David Chase. How crippled would the film world have been if the Italian-American crime saga hadn’t been realized, and how much would the Sopranos be what they were if anything had been different?
The first candidate for the role of Tony was Steve Van Zandt because David Chase wanted someone who was not a professional actor to play the boss from New Jersey. The role was also read by John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco), even in the second round of auditions, together with Edie Falco. Michael Rispoli and Ray Liotta were also among the main candidates, and Michael Imperioli was confident that the first one would get the part. With all due respect to said great actors, to think that this role is not Gandolfini is pure blasphemy.
The great James won’t be angry for sharing this textual journey along with Tony Soprano, because Tony is a child to whom he gave all of himself – laughter, tears, blood, and even life itself, because the fame that he had to carry was never a halo for him, but more a chain of several tons. Fame was not only a necessary evil but something he avoided with all his might and at all costs.
His attitude is perhaps most vividly described at the moment after filming a scene with the beautiful Ariel Kylie (Tracy from Bada Bing) in which she shows him the prosthesis. During a break, he asked her what she will do when she becomes famous. Her answer came later, after the scene in the pool of blood in the parking lot after she was killed by Ralph Cifaretto. “I’ll be more me”, and he replied to her “and you will, but everyone around you will change”. Almost 15 years after she stopped acting, she said that she made her decision right then and there, and she has never regretted it.
The border between Tony and James is a thin line between waking and dreaming, perception, imagination, and subjectivity. They were the same and completely different. James, like Tony, did not tolerate authority figures, which is why his relationship with David Chase was turbulent, to say the least. David never fully understood that someone who chose acting failed to reconcile and name its inevitable companion – fame.
It is needless to say that he stood his ground. I’m not taking anything away from his acting, but Tony couldn’t have been played by someone who wasn’t humdinger. Steve Schirripa stated that James said he would beat up Harvey Weinstein (too bad he didn’t), who convinced him to appear on talk shows. “I don’t want to go there, where were they when I was a taxi driver”. Harvey was not allowed to say a word to him, while all of Hollywood was trembling because of him.
Then again, James had none of Tony’s egotism, selfishness, or total lack of empathy, if we exclude dogs, horses, and of course ducks. He was more like a guy who had flown in from some hippy commune, wearing Birkenstocks, in a time capsule that hadn’t hit the right time to return. However, like Tony, he was harshest to himself, with the fact that Tony carelessly projected the weight onto everyone else around him.
There is not a colleague or associate who has said an unkind word about James. And that has least to do with the fact that he shelled out $40,000 to each of the 16 leading actors, nor with the fact that he demanded more money from HBO before season four, only to pass that money on to underpaid actors like Tony Sirico, who then had back surgery and was in financial problems.
“He was one of the best people, if not the best, I’ve ever met,” recalled James Louis Gross, the bodybuilder and jiu-jitsu master who played Tony’s chauffeur Perry Annunziata, famous for the scene where Tony beats him up in Bada Bing’s office after being wounded, in a “mission to restore respect”. When Gross became part of the team he had problems with the law, he was late to sets on several occasions. James, who did not know him, single-handedly kept him alive in the series.
Aida Turturro and James had a brother-sister relationship in real life as well, and their acquaintance dates back to the making of Streetcar and Angie. Gandolfini brought her on the set, paying her rent for the entire first season because no one got serious money on The Sopranos until near the end of the second series. They fought in private as much as they did on screen. In one scene, Aida got mad at him because she thought Jimmy wasn’t looking at her, so she screamed “don’t fuck with me James”, Ventimiglia and Schirripa, who were filming with them at the time, literally wanted to run off the set out of embarrassment. Everything was intertwined organically, the border between reality and acting did not exist, which is why The Sopranos is the best television series of all time.
When Tony Sirico says in tears after his funeral, “we lost a part of the family”, and the faces of Michael Imperioli, Steve Schirripa, and Edie Falco paint a primal landscape of sadness and shock, it is clear to you that a great man and a friend has died, not a colleague.
It’s no wonder that the three-time winner of the Emmy award Edie Falco remembers scenes with James in which there is almost no communication as the most memorable, because of the way he led each scene with his acting, the feeling of acting as if it reached its climax just when there was almost no acting at all. And what a performance it was! Just one scene of the fight between Carmela and Tony in the episode Whitecaps, according to many, deserved the Emmy.
When he met him for the first time before filming Arthur Nascarella, who played Carlo Gervasi, started to say “let’s buy you a drink”, I say started, because at the same moment James interrupted him, saying the same thing.
The former NYPD officer, who was also an undercover agent on the streets of New York for 17 years and a bodyguard for the royal family from Monaco when they came to America, called Tony “googutz” a nickname of endearment in Italian, just as James was called by his father, James Joseph, originally from the northeastern part of the province of Emilia-Romagna. Only God knows exactly how many “Angry Lobster” specialties they ate at the “Aunties” bar together.
That bond of Italian-Americans who came from the middle and lower American working class, along with the uniqueness of the actors who had not been established until then, created sincere relationships, stable as heaven.
Gandolfini bought the entire cast of “The Sopranos” watches worth two million dollars. All who knew him said that they had never met a more gallant person. He was a true friend – a rare one, giving, temperamental, boisterous, unique. His hermetic circle of friends consisted of people he knew only before his television successes, along with the family he acquired in The Sopranos. The only person who was outside that circle was the young watchmaker Michael Kobold, and the curiosity is that he didn’t even know who Tony Soprano was.
After filming a scene where Toni is having dinner with Meadow, Anthony, and her boyfriend Finn, who almost loses his head because of paying the bill, James asks them what they want to do. Kids like kids, they already had a party booked in a New York disco. Although he hated clubs and publicity, Jimmy told them you know what I’ll call a limo for us and we’ll all go together. And they ended up in the disco “Swayed”, for the eternal memory of the youngest actors of the series, Will Janovic, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, and Robert Iler, but also two cameramen who rushed into the limousine, when Gandolfini shouted, “who else is coming with us?”
Tony Soprano, emotions, acting
There are a lot of movies and series with the mafia as their theme. Countless actors roared across the screen, bequeathing us unforgettable roles, iconic scenes, and dialogues that became part of colloquial jargon, imitated to the point of unconsciousness, and even Chase himself said that The Sopranos would hardly have existed if Goodfellas had not been filmed.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Joe Pesci in Casino, Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, and Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale, subtract and add according to your sensibility. Their names remained, stamped with eternal imprints of the roles they played. But the role never replaced the real name and figure, nor did the fiction wipe out reality in one fell swoop like Mr. Gandolfini’s performance, so many wondered if he was even acting, is he Tony?
Everything is so personal, and you bond with all the characters as if someone threw a helpless golden retriever puppy through your window. They are a family, and the actors are more people who sincerely disappoint you, cheer you up, who you try to figure out again and again, than mere performers of cinematographic works.
They are a mosaic, and Tony is the glue. The sumptuousness of his acting is perhaps best described by the scene when, not knowing if “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero is still alive, he tries to find out the truth from Paulie, back in the day when the accent was slightly different. Anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, pleasure, and a little bit of compassion, in three minutes, the description of the progression of his acting may be pretentious to put down on paper at all.
The fear when he is told that there is a witness to the murder of Matthew Bevilacqua in Davey Scatino’s sporting goods store, and the fearlessness, which could not be diminished by a comical sock on his leg, when he addresses Meadow who wants to travel to Barcelona, are eternal online lessons for future actors.
There are no one-dimensional characters in this series, and how many dimensions has Tony wandered through? Warm, mean, realistic, contradictory. The man in the legendary white bathrobe, a mortal, with famous deep, heavy breathing.
When Tony says in the series that family is the most important, and that “a real man always takes care of his debts”, it’s a moment you remember, like a man’s conversations with his grandfather or father in childhood, which are associated with the first messengers of instilling strength and code.
When Salvatore “Coco” Cogliano was beaten up in New York’s John’s restaurant on 12th Street for insulting his daughter Meadow, even vanilla people, miles away from the choleric, felt that justice had been served, despite the violence. A passer-by later wrote on the forums that he watched James walk onto the set from his trailer just to shoot that scene and that he was very much in “full Tony anger” mode.
His friendship, like the one with Silvio Dante, was our guideline for sincere relationships. The scene with him, Silvio, and Bobby follows Silvio killing Burt Gervasi. The moment when they are boxing at the table, and decide to hit Phil Leotardo first, instantly makes you wonder who would, and if any of your friends would stand by you when the going gets tough.
Food, alcohol, songs
At one point, I was nervously stabbing food on my plate while eating, following his example, I am convinced that I ate more pasta than I usually do. Anyone who hasn’t gotten hungry watching The Sopranos has missed the most subtle cravings for calories ever, and they weren’t necessarily always delicacies, but a simple longing for coke, cannoli, a regular sandwich, mozzarella, provolone.
Ziti, Caprese salads, fettuccini Alfredo, braciola, ricotta and pineapple pies, gabagool, a traditional Italian-Corsican pork product of capicola, which Tony used to grease his fingers usually in the morning, pulling it out of the white foil, just like the chicken cacciatore that Carmela would leave in an ovenproof dish since he would come home late. Countless dinners at Artie Buck’s in “Vesuvio”, or scenes like the one with Steve Schirripa in a typical American diner, in which he actually ate six ribeye steaks before uttering the famous line “Quasimodo foresaw all this”.
Wine! Mostly red, whether on plain checkered or silk formal tablecloths, most often Ruffino Chianti Classico or Quatro Gatti. The scene when he and Moltisanti steal boxes of the top French wine Château Pichon from the “Vipers” gang in The Ride episode, accompanied by the music of the band Free “All Right Now”, immediately takes you to the nearest winery. Drinking “Vendemmia Nonino” grappa with his sister Janice was an intimate act of their internal family ritual and rare moments without any friction.
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Tony Soprano is also songs. You could have heard “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” by the Kinks a million times, but it resonates always and only with the scene from the Cold Cuts episode. I will always remember “Tiny Tears” by the band Tindersticks as the last stage of coming out of severe melancholy, as depression has just started to take over, as well as orange juice (“with some pulp” of course), which is spilled on the sidewalk after Tony’s attempted assassination.
“Glad Tidings” by Van Morrison. The end of Tony Blundetto, a cardboard bag from the meat shop, a double barrel, an unbearably cold fall day in Kinderhook, on a farm in the New York suburbs. The track “Don’t Stop Believing” by the group Journey is a special story. She won the final selection of “Love and Happiness” by Al Green, and was the self-styled “guilty pleasure” of David Chase, who did not care about the comments that the choice fell on a shabby song from the eighties. It is also the last memory of Tony, with symbolism that is hard to avoid – hope, that everything is not as it seems.
One song probably never associated you with James, maybe it will from now on.
In one of the most beautiful eulogies ever written, David Chase said his last goodbyes to his beloved brother in the cathedral St. John the Divine in Upper West Side with this:
“…You know, everyone knows that we ended the episodes with songs. Back then I or the writers left the hard work to the true geniuses, Springsteen, Mick, Keith, Howling Wolf, and others. If this were an episode, as far as I’m concerned it would end with Joan Osborne’s “(What If God Was) One Of Us?”. And the scenario for it – which we’ve never done and you’ve never heard of – is that somehow Tony got lost in the Meadowlands.
He didn’t have his car, his keys, or his wallet. I forgot how he got there – he was all scratched up and had nothing in his pocket but a few coins. He didn’t have his guys with him, not even a gun. And so mob boss Tony Soprano had to become one of the bus queue workers. And the way we were going to shoot it, he would get on the bus, and the song Joan would start. Tony would be on the bus, sitting, and when the bus pulled up in a cloud of diesel fuel smoke, the words of the song would start:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
trying to make his way home.
With you in close-up, that would be a Jimmy song. But again – and this is where it gets a little weird – I would have to update everything now because of the events of last week. And I would let the song play on, and the lyrics would be
Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rollin’ stone
Back up to Heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope, maybe, in Rome”.
The family. As a royal mantle or a false tirade, she was always there. At dinner through the story of Anthony Meucci or a delightfully acted dialogue with his son, after he tried to kill Corrado Soprano. Through love and hate, dedication and arrogance, in a relationship with Carmela.
Sadness and melancholy grew with every mile as the ducks from his pool rushed south. Rebelliousness and ego when he defies Johnny Sack, later Phil Leotardo. Simplicity and ease of living when he goes to the swimming pool in front of the house with a towel and a cigar. Power and determination in his every pore, such that even an ordinary viewer feels brave and defiant.
Sin and selfishness as he treats mid-life crisis with twenty-year-old women in casinos—an absence of empathy, vanity, and pride. David Chase knew how to occasionally remind us that the series revolves around criminals, where sociopathy is hidden behind nice gestures, silk shirts, and effective catchphrases.
We forgave him for his hypocrisy and exaggeration without question. James himself was sympathetic to Tony’s flaws for a while, believing that a certain innate bit of goodness balanced everything, but after a while he too gave up on Tony on a human level, despising him.
Humiliating Hash over the loan, sending Bobby to execute the French in Vancouver, not being able to accept his sisters Janice’s progress in controlling her anger, and his condescending attitude towards Carmela, are just a few of those moments. As the serials continued, the colors and tones on the camera became darker and more ominous, so there was less and less of the team in front of Satriales at the checkered tables, laughter, and sincere relationships.
James just wanted to enjoy strozzapreti pasta with pancetta in peace and drink Chianti, the wine found by Cosimo III Medici. He bequeathed art, James acting. In a world where everyone wants to be “something else”, he wanted to be like everyone else. A month before he died, everyone was at his party. When the show ended and the hype died down over the years, he finally found his peace, which lasted for a cruelly short time.
Fate, however, allowed him not to leave before the completion of David Chase’s masterpiece, as an eternal epitaph to his talent, work, and passion, and to become a golden inlaid history, lasting memory, myth, and nostalgia.
And not without the last supper. A view of one of the oldest churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the beautiful Roman “attic” full of bougainvillea and rosalia, from the garden of the iconic restaurant Sabatini. Tony and James. So what is acting? What is reality? Are they both deceased now, or?
The answer to the first question does not exist, the boundaries were erased by James, who will never give us an answer, therefore the solution to this riddle will remain an eternal mystery. And as for the second question, I will have to correct Nemanja and return to the beginning of the text. James Gandolfini died, but only to become immortal. Tony Soprano is still alive.
It is a small consolation when I realize that Jimmy should have received the award in Taormina, but he left the world at only 51 years old. That he should have been smiling and sharing his bohemia with the people who appreciated and loved him. He was supposed to, here and there, eat the two of his favorite meals from childhood, polenta with sausages, pecorino, and parmesan cheese, and ososbuco with risotto alla Milanese. To sing “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, or some song from his favorite band ACDC, to heartily cheer the New York “Jets” from the stands, to break a few vases, show the middle finger to the journalists, to smile contagiously from ear to ear. To, as always, leave no one indifferent, in all his virtues and flaws. Because there is no magnificent surface without a terrible depth.
Then again, he left us another one of himself, for eternity, to whom we return again and again. Who else managed to do it? Good night Jimmy, and good morning Tony.
Pavle Jakšić | Vitraž
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Cover illustration: Tom Ralston