I just woke up to the news that James Gandolfini died yesterday, while on vacation in Rome, at the age of 51. I have still not fully processed the news. Like everyone else, I have heard many times of the unexpected early deaths of favorite performers. Nothing prepares you for it, and in a way it's like losing close friends unexpectedly. I was too young for the death of Marilyn Monroe to have that sort of impact on me, but part of me is still reeling over the loss of Audrey Hepburn, River Phoenix, John Ritter, Peter Sellers, John Lennon, George Harrison, John Candy, Heath Ledger, Lee Remick, Andy Kaufman, Paul Lynde, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, just to give you a portion of my personal list. They shouldn't be gone. Why are they gone? It's unbearable for me and for millions of others, to add James Gandolfini to that list.
Gandolfini was such a vital presence that it seems inconceivable he is no longer with us. Anyone who watched even one episode of "The Sopranos"--well, forget about that. Except for people who are squeamish about violence and sex, NOBODY watched just one episode of "The Sopranos," because one episode was all it took to get you hooked. And, despite the overall hard-charging excellence of the show, the main reason people got hooked was James Gandolfini. There had never been on TV, nor has there been since, such a volcanic mixture of terrifying brutality and delicately nuanced unease as Tony Soprano. David Chase was a genius to create the character, but James Gandolfini was an equal genius to realize him on screen.
Just the other day, a news article spoke of the continuing fascination of the enigmatic final scene of "The Sopranos," where the Soprano family sits in a New Jersey diner, eating onion rings, surrounded by people who exude menace. Are they rival mobsters? Feds? Just people having dinner? Tony pops an onion ring in his mouth, and then--darkness. The Internet is still clogged with speculation about what happened next. (I particularly liked the answer of "Sopranos" co-star Steven R. Schirripa: "Tony choked to death on an onion ring.") I also find myself thinking of the nightmare episode in which Tony, dreaming an alternative life, comes to a country inn where he is received by a smiling host. The host is Tony Blundetto (played by the great Steve Buscemi), Tony's cousin, whom Tony shot to death. The host is very, very eager to have Tony come in and meet everyone inside, but Tony knows instinctively that he must not enter that inn.
We just weren't ready for James Gandolfini to enter that inn, or to fade to black. And we never will be.