James Gandolfini is dead.
The actor, who won three Emmys for his performance as Tony Soprano, died suddenly in Italy on his way to the Taormina Film Festival, Variety reported earlier this evening. He was 51. This is not fair.
Not that fairness has anything to do with life expectancy, of course, or that the universe is fair in the first place. But Gandolfini seemed too hale, too strong, to just drop dead.
He was a big man, mind you. His bulk, combined with his receding hairline, made him perfect for a series of thug roles in his thirties - most memorably in True Romance and Get Shorty - before David Chase saw the softness in his eyes and gave him the role of his career in HBO's The Sopranos. Not that Tony Soprano was soft - as a number of the show's characters would observe, he was a fuckin' monster - but he was human, and other actors might have overplayed the humanity in order to sell the character's bad acts. Gandolfini didn't have to. It was right there on his face all the time.
If Gandolfini had only played Tony Soprano, that would be enough on which to hang a career, but he was always good, always interesting. In Gore Verbinski's The Mexican, released shortly after the Sopranos made him a star, he brought a weird playfulness to the throwaway role of Julia Roberts's sidekick. He did a great slow burn in the Ben Affleck comedy Surviving Christmas, and made his musical debut in John Turturro's Romance And Cigarettes as a working-class husband tempted away from his wife. All three of those movies were met with critical disdain; no one ever had a bad word to say about Gandolfini's performances.
After The Sopranos ended its run, Gandolfini began a proper movie career. He became an all-purpose character actor, shifting between comedy and drama and action stuff as the roles suited him. And filmmakers responded to him, finding ways to use his essential New Jerseyness without mocking it.
Tony Scott, who'd given him his first complex role as a would-be assassin in True Romance, cast him as the mayor of New York in his remake of The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, and of course he did; who else was more perfect for that role? Armando Iannucci gave him a fine little part as an American general in his political satire In The Loop; Spike Jonze used his voice for the troubled monster Carol in his magnificent adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. The tenderness Gandolfini invests in that performance is devastating; Carol's conversations with the young, confused Max have a weary honesty that feels so raw and immediate that, once again, Gandolfini barely seems to be acting.
As the news of Gandolfini's death was breaking, my friend Will Sloan tweeted "James Gandolfini being gone means no more perking up when he unexpectedly appears in something." That happened a lot in the last couple of years - in Violet And Daisy and Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which comes out on disc next week, now with extra melancholy.
Gandolfini also turned up as a suburban dad in Not Fade Away, the directorial debut of Sopranos creator Chase. It's an ungodly mess of a movie, but Gandolfini plays his role as if he doesn't notice; he simply shows up to work with his friend, bringing gravity and humanity to the role of a working-class guy who doesn't understand why his kid wants to be a musician.
Chase gives him the worst line in the movie - "I got cancer" - and Gandolfini still sells it. He gives the moment a note of exasperated bewilderment, as though he can't believe the universe would screw him over like that. And now, neither can we.
Reactions from across the Twitter-sphere:
So sad to lose James Gandolfini. One of the sweetest, funniest, most generous actors I've ever worked with. Sending prayers to his family.
- Susan Sarandon (@SusanSarandon) June 20, 2013
Amazing outpouring of tributes to James Gandolfini - reflective of the huge impact he had as Tony Soprano, one of TV's greatest characters.
- Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) June 20, 2013
Jesus. The world just lost one of its great actors. James Gandolfini has passed away. Thoughts to his family. Such a talent. I'm saddened.
- Ewan McGregor (@mcgregor_ewan) June 20, 2013
James Gandolfini. Unbelievably sad news. A fine man.
- Steve Carell (@SteveCarell) June 20, 2013
I'm sadder about James Gandolfini than everyone else.
- Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) June 20, 2013
Damn. RIP James Gandofini. An amazing actor that made arguably the greatest drama of all time, & a funny, sweet, gentle giant off screen.
- Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) June 20, 2013
RIP James Gandolfini! Your iconic portrayal of mob boss Tony Soprano gave soul to a monster and fostered perverse pride in the Garden State!
- KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) June 19, 2013
RIP James Gandolfini. A tragedy. He was a great, great actor.
- Brent Spiner (@BrentSpiner) June 20, 2013