James Gandolfini death: Actor will have his Heath Ledger moment

There’s no tribute more fitting — or eerie — than a well-known actor who dies, then materializes months or years later on the movie screen. It happened to James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Ditto for Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.”

Now James Gandolfini will join their tragic ranks.

Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at age 51, shot two movies since last summer that he won’t get to see. The rest of us, fortunately, will.

PHOTOS: James Gandolfini | 1961-2013

In Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said,” shot in August and September in Los Angeles, Gandolfini plays a character we haven’t seen him play before: a gentle, lovable soul who is just looking for love. He’s a TV archivist named Albert whom the female lead, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, falls in love with. As this is a Holofcener movie, it’s a human story, full of quiet moments and genuine emotion, according to a person familiar with the project. The film isn’t dated, but it’s tentatively scheduled to come out sometime next year.

Earlier this spring Gandolfini shot a crime drama set in Brooklyn titled “Animal Rescue,” which like “Enough Said” comes from the studio division Fox Searchlight. Director Michael Roskum (“Bullhead”) is in postproduction on the movie, which is notable on several fronts. It’s a Euro-centric acting affair set in outerboro New York (Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace play the leads). And its story of redemption involving the rescue of a pit bull, a con, a romance and a Brooklyn bar marks the feature screenwriting debut of one Dennis Lehane, the novelist on whose work “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River” are based.


But now it’s known for something else much bigger than that: the last movie Gandolfini shot. Ganfolini plays the proprietor of a bar and an older spirit guide of sorts to Hardy’s bartender character, who becomes embroiled in a plot involving Chechen gangsters. The movie is also not dated, but will aim to come out in 2014.

PHOTOS: Gandolfini’s career highlights

I visited the set of “Animal Rescue” in March. I wasn’t lucky enough to be there when Gandolfini was working. But you could feel the buzz in the air, both from the other actors and the crew, who were describing a man more gentle and down to earth than the Tony Soprano-type they imagined. Apparently, when lunch was called, he didn’t retreat to his trailer like so many other actors but sat with the grippers and gaffes, talking about everything under the sun, including dogs, a big theme in the film.

In one memorable scene, Gandolfini and Hardy reportedly go back and forth on the pronunciation of names of people who come from Chechnya. Gandolfini calls them “Chechnyans” — you can almost hear Tony Soprano saying the word — and Hardy corrects him that it’s “Chechens.”

It’s the kind of subtly skillful moment Gandolfini made a career out of. As of Wednesday, it’s a career cut way too short. But thanks to his chops and his work ethic, it’s a career that isn’t over yet.


VIDEO: Tony Soprano’s best scenes

PHOTOS: Celebrities react on Twitter

OBITUARY: James Gandolfini swaggered his way to fame

REACTION: Stars heartbroken by news of Gandolfini’s death