September 18, 1961 – June 19, 2013
It’s hard to believe that today marks exactly one year since the death of actor James Gandolfini, critically renowned for his role as Tony Soprano on the flagship HBO series. In addition to being the center of attention on The Sopranos, he held the stage down on Broadway several times and delivered monster performances on the big screen. It’s a shame he passed at the young age of 51 from a heart attack (not to mention while on vacation with his family in Rome). Gandolfini was beloved by co-stars, friends, and audiences alike. I hold him in the same regard as Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, and Marlon Brando. When an actor convinces an audience of fifty million to empathize with a sadistic criminal mastermind, that cannot go unrecognized.
Everything at Digital Innovations centers around the enjoyment of multimedia. Period. And as media lovers, DI recognizes one of the late, great performers of the last decade.
With that in mind, and in honor of James Gandolfini, I give you my top five Tony Soprano moments. Enjoy!
[WARNING: If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the Sopranos before, hold off on reading as there will be major spoilers.]
1.) Tony Goes to College – S01E09
In an early episode of The Sopranos, Tony has the pleasure of accompanying his young daughter Meadow (actress Jamie Lynn Spears) on a college visit. In one of the best displays of the duality that is Tony Soprano, he seamlessly flip-flops from being the big teddy bear Daddy to the cold, calculating mob boss with a loose end to take care of. Tony lets Meadow explore the college while he takes care of business across town dealing with a former friend turned FBI informant. Tony’s way of dealing? A garrote. When the deed is done and Tony speeds back to campus to pick up his daughter, Gandolfini demonstrates his chops by playing the caring Italian father to Meadow again. The best part of the episode: Meadow seeing right through the act and confronting her father about his “business.” There are so many episodes with him yelling at his wife Carmela and whiny son A.J., but when he is interacting with his favorite child, it’s chilling to see him flip the switch. A switch that brings on the loving personality to shield blatant lies to the daughter that loves him.
2.) “I Heard the tapes, Ma!” – S01E13
A central theme on the Sopranos is the effect Tony’s toxic mother had on him, and how that underlying resentment and self-hate developed him into the true monster he became (it also didn’t help that he witnessed his mob father take care of a man in butcher shop). Played with vitriol by actress Nancy Marchand, Livia Soprano eventually hated her son so much that she conspired to have him taken out by her own brother Junior Soprano. Junior, feeling marginalized by old age and changes in leadership of the family, was more than willing despite his lifelong admiration for Tony. Luckily for Tony, the worst mom and uncle ever fail to carry out the hit. This sets a chain of events in motion that ultimately drives even more fury into Tony to seek vengeance against his own role models. In an act of desperation, Tony rushes to the hospital where Livia is at to strangle her, but his mother’s stroke puts the kabosh on that plan. When he exclaims about hearing about the planned hit, all she does is deliver a chilling smile.
3.) The Alternate Reality Dream – S06E02
When Tony is driven into a coma, the episode takes an unexpected turn: Tony’s extended traveling salesman dream sequence. This is a difficult sequence for many fans of the show because the contrast to other episodes is so jarring. But that’s what makes Gandolfini’s acting range really stand out: we’re so used to seeing this angry killer and sadist on the screen, and in this alternate reality sequence, he plays an average Joe salesmen on a business trip who seems to have misplaced his wallet at the hotel bar. His friendly demeanor and reaction to everyone he interacts with in the sequence makes this episode unforgettable.
4.) “Listen, I’m Not Going to Go Out With You.” – S01E13
Tony and his relationship with his therapist Dr. Melfi is all over the map. From shattering her table and yelling horrible things at his kind hearted therapist, to offering sincere concern and comfort to her during her low points (especially after being assaulted just outside her office), his overall feelings toward therapy seem to be mixed. But it’s Gandolfini who gives Tony a truly pathetic moment. It has nothing to do with depression or therapy. His attempts to proposition Dr. Melfi for a date are shut down. Tony’s complete lack of understanding that a woman would turn him down and his line of questioning really puts the man in a deeper perspective than before. Dr. Melfi turns him down purely because their values do not align. This is not something that makes sense to Tony, as the mobster is not accustomed to being told “no.” His feeble smile and wisecracking after the rejection do not hide the fact that this man may be genuinely hurt. Again, this is the kind of acting that put Gandolfini at the top of his game.
5.) The Diner – S06 Finale
It’s one of the most polarizing episodes of TV ever. Viewers either love or hate the finale in the diner, where ambiguity hits its fictional peak. As Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” plays on the jukebox in the crowded diner, and Tony glances around at the patrons, you can feel the paranoia pulsing off the screen. Where is his family? Why is he so paranoid when the rivals are all dead and the FBI is seemingly off his case? It’s somewhat ironic that he is not at ease when everything finally returns to normality. Normal has never been a comfortable spot for Tony Soprano. As Gandolfini looks up to see his family enter the diner, the camera lingers a bit too long on several suspicious individuals before cutting straight to black. Is Tony dead? Is he alive? What happened? This sense of wonder, paranoia, and viewer annoyance is orchestrated brilliantly by Gandolfini’s final glance at the camera.
In Honor of James Gandolfini – One Year Later
This list barely scratches the surface of James Gandolfini’s excellent acting on the Sopranos. It’s definitely not a show for kids and even some adults: it’s just so violent and dark at times that some viewers may never experience Gandolfini in the flesh. But if you’re like me, every year I like to get out some old Sopranos DVDs and revisit some of these great moments. Whether you stream the show on HBO GO, Amazon, or rent seasons from RedBox – it’s perfect to watch with the volume up and some popcorn. For the best viewing experience possible, make sure you have a look at SkipDr and CleanDr so you can truly appreciate this talented actor on your entertainment system (or Blu-ray player).
James Gandolfini, it’s been a year already, but know that you are dearly missed. Rest in peace and know that you left an unforgettable mark on TV forever.