James Gandolfini always made an impact, as character actor or leading man

Posted by · 4:00 pm · June 19th, 2013

I finally met James Gandolfini last year. It was Paramount’s Christmas party at Spago in Beverly Hills and he was there with his “Killing Them Softly” director Andrew Dominik. He was, in a word, imposing. I shook his hand and it engulfed my own. He seemed incredibly unwilling to suffer a fool and I loved that about him, as I do people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, etc. But he was willing to engage, willing to give a glimpse of that soft-center.

Now, suddenly, he’s dead. A heart attack in Italy. Too soon doesn’t begin to say it, but as the news makes its way across the wires I find myself, as we always do at times like this, thinking back on the work. And Gandolfini had a wealth of it. You see, he wasn’t always this star, this “name.” He made his hay as a character actor in film after film, always leaving a deep impression, long before “The Sopranos” came calling.

Immediately, I remember his performance as Bear in Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty,” which in many ways summed up at least my impression of the man. Big, imposing, but ultimately, a teddy bear. I remember him standing out in “Crimson Tide” and the TV version of “12 Angry Men.” I remember “Night Falls on Manhattan” and “Fallen.” A welcome standby at every turn.

And who can forget his psychotic mob man Virgil in Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” pouncing on fragile Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and taking devilish delight in every blow. That kind of character detail is what made him spark, what made people remember.

Then, stardom. “The Sopranos” made him (he won a Golden Globe, three Emmys and three SAG Awards for his work on the show), and suddenly he found himself a name on a poster. He showed up in “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and stirred early awards chatter for his villainous portrayal in Rod Lurie’s “The Last Castle,” both DreamWorks films right at the moment the new studio was finding its footing.

He was outrageous and hilarious in Armando Iannucci’s 2009 comedy “In the Loop.” I secretly kept hoping for a cameo of his Lt. Gen. George Miller in Iannucci’s HBO series “Veep.” But I think he was perhaps most effectively used, ironically enough, by Spike Jonze as the voice of Carol in 2010’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Like the actor himself, it was a larger-than-life character. But even though Gandolfini wasn’t on screen, he breathed such soul into the role that it was really a next-level kind of vocal performance.

Most recently Gandolfini flirted with the awards season last year in “Not Fade Away,” “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s first foray into feature filmmaking. He gave what might be one of his finest performances as a conflicted father, eager for his son to become his own man but careful to not see it happen too fast. All the while he embodied the film’s spirit of a life lived free versus one lived in regret. It was a delicate piece of work, unsung, really.

Last year also brought a bit part in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Kathryn Bigelow knew exactly what she was doing casting him as CIA director Leon Panetta. It needed to be someone who could show up and impact the film immediately. For all the reasons stated above, Gandolfini was that guy, able to make you sit up and take note.

He’s gone but his work will stick around just a bit longer. This summer he can be seen in Geoffrey Fletcher’s “Violet & Daisy” and will at some point show up in Nicole Holofcener’s latest as well as the Dennis Lehane adaptation “Animal Rescue” from director Michaël R. Roskam.

But it goes without saying, there was a lot more left in that tank. Dead at 51 years old. We’ll never see that instantly identifiable outline again. We’ll never feel the impact of his work on a project again. Well, we will, through the memories. Through the re-watches. He lives on, in these roles and more. But he’ll nevertheless be missed.

Too soon. Yeah, it still doesn’t begin to say it.

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