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The Sopranos' Biggest Villain Was a Secret Hollywood Hero IRL - Here's Why
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Pop Culture

The Sopranos' Biggest Villain Was a Secret Hollywood Hero IRL - Here's Why

Tony Soprano reflected James Gandolfini's life in more ways than one, but the actor's sincerity and generosity are how he is remembered. And that's important.

The '90s are fondly remembered for its television, and not only because of nostalgia. Several of the decade’s most successful shows are not just examples of popular programming, they were genuinely innovative and became cultural phenomena.

From The Simpsons and Seinfeld at the beginning of the decade, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos at the very end, the '90s were never short of ambitious entries to the television landscape. The decade’s biggest hits still captivate newcomers, and the aforementioned Sopranos particularly impacted how networks see the potential of television.

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Most of The Sopranos’ originally aired during the 2000s, so it is much more of a show from the new millennium than the 20th century’s last decade. The show’s critical acclaim was there from the start, and with more accessible viewing habits, the show’s fanbase only increased. It would also prove to be immensely influential in other ways.

Indeed, it is usually credited for not only starting the new “golden age” of American television but also for impacting other dramas starring disgruntled antiheroes, such as Breaking Bad, through its main protagonist, Tony Soprano. Now, while Tony is not the best example of a good person, the man playing the character was the exact opposite. James Gandolfini was a far cry from the ruthless role he played, despite how intertwined with his own personal life it ended up being.

The Sopranos’ Connection To James Gandolfini’s Success

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Before The Sopranos was produced and made him a household name, Gandolfini starred in crime and thriller films, such as True Romance, Terminal Velocity, and Crimson Tide. In a way, Tony Soprano was a perfect role for Gandolfini. It's easy to think he might have been typecast beforeThe Sopranos’ success, but his performance in True Romance is what convinced casting director Susan Fitzgerald to invite Gandolfini to audition.

Typecasting is both a blessing and a curse, of course, as Leonard Nimoy’s experience with the character Spock proved. Gandolfini’s past roles helped him become the actor that would depict Tony Soprano. The acclaim he received from both fans and critics for his performance on The Sopranos only helped solidify his image as a pop culture mobster. This was sometimes to Gandolfini’s disadvantage since people mostly expected him to talk about Tony or re-enact the character’s most memorable scenes. Yet, while it might have annoyed Gandolfini, he was never consumed by frustration.

The Surprising Nature Of The Man Behind Tony Soprano

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James Gandolfini could have easily been a stereotypical arrogant celebrity. He was already well-respected in the acting world, but his lead role in one of the most important TV dramas in history made him a superstar. His public image has been immortalized as a complex father figure and gangster, but he never let his fame get to him.

Controversy surrounding him was either related to youthful vices or strictly professional, and as the later paragraphs show, the “tough guy” nature that comes with living life as brutal as Tony Soprano’s did not completely take over his actual personality despite its impact on him.

Ironically, or perhaps, fittingly, considering The Sopranos’ themes of family and its focus on Tony’s own emotions, Gandolfini was compassionate and generous toward his coworkers and peers, regardless of whether they got top billing alongside him, had a guest part, or were miscellaneous people that appreciated his work.

Of course, people are expected to act courteous toward their colleagues, and celebrities acting nasty to fans is one of the worst things they could do for their public image. However, there were never utilitarian motives behind Gandolfini’s actions. This made him stand out even more, especially in Hollywood.

Gandolfini’s true nature would arise whenever something sketchy, depraved, or particularly despicable was written into a Sopranos script. As charismatic as he was as Tony, Gandolfini would never hesitate to act reluctant to act out something heinous or disgusting. He would sometimes attempt to retool a scene for the comfort of both himself and his coworkers.

While most of these attempts failed, as Tony’s several questionable actions throughout the series imply, Gandolfini’s soft side remained at the core of his personality, even when he completely immersed himself in Tony’s mindset.

James Gandolfini’s Most Triumphant Decisions

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The production of The Sopranos was rough, which is expected from a work in the film and television industry, but it went way beyond the usual complications. Despite The Sopranos’ tremendous success and overwhelming influence that it has on pop culture even today, most of the cast were not properly compensated for their input on such an impactful work. This disparity led to a series of disputes between the crew and HBO. The network and Gandolfini even sued each other.

To Gandolfini, his fellow actors were not just there to complement the story he acted out. They were his equals, each of them contributing to the world of The Sopranos in their own way. Indirectly making up for HBO’s own stinginess in the process, Gandolfini actually split his $13 million salary between his co-stars, as a way to thank them for their support. Indeed, he wrote 16 individual $33,000 checks. Like Gandolfini said when describing his actions, it was like “buying each person a car.”

Once again, being supportive of your coworkers is the least a person can do, even if they are the main star of a ludicrously popular television series, but Gandolfini went beyond the standard comradery.

Not only did he use some of his own wealth for his coworkers’ sake, he was also patient and even enthusiastic with fans. One particular famous story involves him signing a woman’s bible, as both “Jim Gandolfini” and “Tony Soprano,” and talking to the woman’s son, a veteran in a coma, using his Tony voice. By the time he was done, Gandolfini was allegedly so moved, he started sobbing in a towel.

These are only two examples among many. Gandolfini also comforted a then-struggling Lin Manuel Miranda during the latter’s bit role, and he was patient with Robert Loggia when the latter struggled with his lines during filming.

The man was not a saint, and the way TV immortalized him certainly does not depict him as heavenly, but Gandolfini’s ability to empathize with other people’s struggles was the ultimate source of his generosity. Any person in the arts or any other cooperative field needs to take a look at Gandolfini’s relationship with The Sopranos and learn from him, in case they also become as successful as him.


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