I, like the rest of the world, was stunned to learn that James Gandolfini passed away Wednesday afternoon of a heart attack while on vacation in Italy. He was 51.
Without a doubt, he is best known for his role as conflicted mobster Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, a role for which he won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. Though he made an indelible mark in his other ventures, which included film, television, and stage, it's his work as Tony that will become his legacy.
These past few months I've been working my way through watching The Sopranos for the first time. Growing up, I didn't have access to HBO, and really I came of age, culturally speaking, at the very end of the show's run (and there was no way I was going to watch A&E's edited-for-content re-runs). Coincidentally, the episode I had queued after learning of Gandolfini's death was "Whitecaps," the much-discussed season four finale. Many of the obituaries and tributes I've read these past few days have singled out that episode, and for good reason: it's a tour de force for both Gandolfini and Edie Falco, who portrayed Tony's put-upon wife Carmela. It's been said that the only reason the two of them won Emmys for that episode instead of Oscars was the size of the screen it played on, and without a doubt it is the strongest-acted episode of the series so far.
I couldn't think of a better testament to Gandolfini's prowess as an actor, as he was consistently surprising audiences and finding new angles for well-worn character types all the way through last year, with his appearances in Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, and Not Fade Away. His gift will be missed.