James Gandolfini died today at age 51 of a heart attack, an HBO rep confirmed to Variety. He was an actor who played many roles, but it’s impossible to value any of those above his Tony Soprano.
In a show so thoroughly fraught with symbolism, one visual metaphor seemed particularly apt: James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a bear. He was a big lumbering menace who could be cuddly and charming at times and certainly protective of his family, but ultimately he would claw your entire face off. It was a role he inhabited fully—a multifaceted, bravura performance that paved the way for every TV antihero to come.
Tony Soprano was a man you could root for and simultaneously hate at a core level. The writing on The Sopranos was obviously top-tier, but without Gandolfini’s impeccable portrayal, that crucial layer of likability might have been lost beneath all that villainy. Six years after the show famously blacked out into the ether, Gandolfini’s duality still reverberates on the airwaves, especially on AMC, where Don Draper and Walter White play affable monsters.
No one did dirty deeds quite so creatively as the creators of The Sopranos either—and no one outside of the Corleone clan brought hits to gritty life like Tony Soprano, as played by Gandolfini. In the episode "College," where we first see Tony murder a person on-screen, the stage directions probably describe the act of strangulation. But it is the intensity of this remarkable actor’s commitment to the character that makes us feel as though our own personal windpipes are also being crushed.
Here’s a fitting send-off for the man whose iconic gangster character sent off so many. [BEWARE: HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD]
Tony flashes back to his first hit ever, in 1982.
Tony whacks a rat while taking his daughter to tour colleges.
Tony kills Chucky Signore (not for the last time he’ll kill someone on a boat.)
Big Pussy lends a hand in killing Matthew Bevilaqua.
Of course, things didn’t end up going so well for Big Pussy.
Tony Soprano kills Ralph Cifaretto. Partly over a horse.
Tony kills the other Tony, Tony Blundetto, played by occasional series director, Steve Buscemi.
In one of the biggest surprises of the entire series, Tony kills his own nephew, Christopher Moltisanti.
And the subject of many conspiracies and interpretations, the divisive final scene—The Sopranos itself gets whacked.