Dan Bischoff


It was not unlike the way The Sopranos ended, in Holsten’s ice cream parlor in Bloomfield, New Jersey: One minute Tony’s changing the jukebox to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” waiting for his daughter, Meadow, to join the rest of the family for onion rings. And then, fade to black.

Only this time, the restaurant was in a five-star hotel in Rome, built on third-century Roman ruins across the street from a church Michelangelo designed for the last intact ancient tepidarium, in the Baths of Diocletian. James Gandolfini was in Italy with his son, Michael, on vacation. They’d arrived on the twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles the night before, and had just had “a beautiful day” sightseeing. Jim told friends he’d been looking forward to a “boys’ trip,” where he and Michael, thirteen, could explore their Italian heritage together—it was something Tony Soprano had said he wanted to do after touring Naples in the second season, let his kids see “all this stuff they come from.” In the afternoon, he took Michael to the Vatican. He bought a couple of rosaries for his sisters, blessed by Pope Francis and promising indulgences, the proceeds dedicated to the convent that works for Rome’s poor. Then they went to the Musei Vaticani to see, among much else, the mummies and sarcophagi in the Ancient Egyptian galleries. They were photographed there standing between two illustrated coffin lids by a pair of American tourists from Philadelphia.

They left the Vatican in the middle of one of those Roman afternoons in June when the rooflines waver in the sun and the fountain spray evaporates before it hits the pool. They were waiting for James’s sister Leta, who was arriving from Paris that night after meetings with her dress company, American Rag. They were going to enjoy a few days in the curving Boscolo Hotel Exedra on the Piazza della Repubblica until Jim made a scheduled appearance at the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, where he’d do an appearance with an old castmate, Marisa Tomei. It was just James and Michael that night in the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, still trying to get past the jet lag and fall into sync with Italian time. They ate, lingered over drinks and dessert, and started drifting up to their room around 9:00 p.m. And then, fade to black.

At least, that’s how it felt to many. Michael found his father on the floor of the bathroom in their suite at around ten that night and called the desk for help. An emergency crew from the nearby Policlinico Umberto I was there in minutes; Gandolfini was still alive, even as they wheeled him, bare-chested and wrapped in a hotel blanket, out through the lobby. He died at the hospital of cardiac arrest, after continuous resuscitation efforts, forty minutes later.

He was fifty-one years old.

At first, the world reacted the way so many had to the end of The Sopranos—with absolute shock. Then the cascade of regrets, well-wishes, and sorrow for an actor who made millions sympathize with a stone-cold killer for almost ten years, becoming part of the American family. Everyone expected many more years, and many more characters, each one subtly reshaping the working-class hero he’d become—such as Enough Said, a romantic comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Fox Searchlight, expected for 2014 (the company would put it into quick turnaround after Gandolfini’s death), about a woman who falls in love with her friend’s husband. Slowly, the realization sunk in that this fade-out meant something else—there would be no Sopranos movie.

Ever since “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” went into its last verse in that Bloomfield ice cream parlor, every fan of The Sopranos had been asking when their favorite mob family would get its big-budget, Godfather-type, silver-screen treatment, as if that would somehow be better. Gandolfini had been asked about it just a few days before he took off for Rome, by a TMZ paparazzo on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and he’d answered that he had no idea. The only time, he said, he was sure it would get made was when “David Chase runs out of money.”

Even that won’t be enough to get it made now, because there is no Sopranos without Tony Soprano. James Gandolfini’s creation, from 1999–2007, of the lugubrious mob boss with such mother problems that he starts seeing a female therapist, became one of the most indelibly mythic characters of American television.

Tony was a kind of cross between Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski and  Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, a raging id of greed and lust who could make you laugh at the clumsiness of his surgically precise malapropisms. Tony was “with that Senator Sanitorium” on the issue of gay rights; he could be “prostate with grief”; revenge, he believed, was “like serving cold cuts.” And yet, Tony was not a buffoon. Or anyway, not just a buffoon. Something in the alchemy of Gandolfini’s performance made Tony very real to millions of Americans and fans around the world. So real that James Gandolfini’s death seemed as if it had happened to a neighbor, or a relative. His death was all in the family.

And at the same time, it was Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Justified. James Gandolfini was one of those actors who changed the medium in which they performed. It’s often said that he introduced an era of TV antiheroes. What he definitely did was show us a bad man who hurt other people out of his own vulnerabilities. As America went around serving cold cuts to the rest of the world after 9/11 (the Twin Towers fell within sight of some of the scenes in The Sopranos’ famous opening credits), and its rusting middle-class economy barreled toward decline and collapse, that theme seemed to take on an importance far beyond TV itself.

Gandolfini Dan Bischoff