James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a cultural sensation

James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a cultural sensation
“The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano commanded attention on and off screen.
(Barry Wetcher / HBO)

Alongside Mr. Spock, Archie Bunker and the Fonz, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano has been absorbed wholesale into the American psyche to rank as one of TV’s most indelible icons.

In every sense of the term, Gandolfini’s mob boss was larger than life: a man of grand appetites, enormous externalized rage and tremendous heart who cast an equally gigantic shadow across popular culture during six seasons on HBO’s “The Sopranos” that qualify as some of the finest television ever produced.


While the multiple Emmy winner, who died unexpectedly Wednesday on a trip to Italy, will be remembered as a loving father, “a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity” (according to his “Sopranos” costar Edie Falco), a journeyman movie actor and “a true New Jersey guy” (as recalled by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who should know), portraying TV’s preeminent Mafia kingpin forever cemented Gandolfini’s reputation as a different kind of made man.

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His was a character whose cultural sweep reached from beyond the cable box, into the street as well as the corridors of real-life political power.

Moreover, playing the kind of guy that other men aspired to be and women wanted to be with, he recast notions of what a leading man on television could look like in his own outsized image.

Gandolfini’s appeal defied demographics and national boundaries. His character became an avatar of Italian American-ness shouted out by hip-hop artists on rap songs and a de facto champion of “old school” values in a swag-suite-filled world, trawling the Tri-State area in a leather car coat, blasting oldies rock ‘n’ roll with an immense, Churchill-gauge cigar clenched between his lips.

As Tony Soprano, the actor became the unlikeliest of all sex symbols: a morbidly obese, balding, middle-aged dad from suburban New Jersey who — in addition to suffering from panic attacks, anger-management issues and a mommy complex — was amply depicted shuffling around his McMansion in a fluffy bathrobe, wife-beater T-shirt and yesterday’s boxer shorts.


As far back as 2001, a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece hailed Tony Soprano as “the first real sex symbol of the new millennium,” with columnist Cheryl Lavin quoting a reader who summed up the common sentiment: “Let’s face it. Tony is the kind of guy every woman — if she would admit it — wants to be with. He’s strong, powerful, rich, totally in control. Other men cower before him. You know if you’re with a man like Tony, you will be completely taken care of.”

More central to Gandolfini’s cultural legacy, however, is his charismatic characterization of a deeply flawed man. A sad-eyed hulk with a slightly adenoidal speaking voice who’s as capable of tending to the migratory ducks in his swimming pool as murdering a beloved nephew, he forever rejiggered television’s fascination with morally challenged antiheroes and less-than-physically-perfect protagonists.

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So much of the programming that followed arguably owes Tony Soprano a psychic hat-tip: “Breaking Bad’s” chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-dealer Walter White, corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey on “The Shield,” “Dexter’s” titular serial killer Dexter Morgan or Vicodin-popping medical professional Jackie Peyton on “Nurse Jackie.” (To say nothing of self-deluding womanizer Don Draper on “Mad Men,” the show created by former “Sopranos” writer Matthew Weiner.)


“I owe him,” “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston tweeted Thursday. “Quite simply, without Tony Soprano there is no Walter White.”

But Gandolfini’s most famous dramatic persona helped move the cultural thermometer in other ways too. With the early ‘00s bloom of “Sopranos” popularity, his performance inspired business education guides such as “Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired by America’s Favorite Mobster” by Anthony Schneider.

And Tony’s name evolved into shorthand among political pundits for raging ambition and unbridled clout.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared Hillary Clinton to the mob boss in 2007, declaring that like Tony Soprano, then-Sen. Clinton was: “so power hungry that she can justify any thuggish means to get the prize.” Time magazine pronounced dictator Kim Jong Il “The Tony Soprano of North Korea.” And as recently as this week, before Gandolfini’s death, the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.”

OBITUARY: James Gandolfini swaggered his way to fame

“One thing about us tough guys, the hustle never ends,” Gandolfini famously uttered on “The Sopranos,” a remark that was retweeted thousands of times in hours immediately following the actor’s death.

In homage on Wednesday, the “Sopranos” theme song “Woke Up This Morning” by the Alabama 3 was played over the PA system at New York’s Yankee Stadium during a game between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

At Holsten’s, the Bloomfield, N.J., ice cream parlor where “The Sopranos’” controversial final scene was shot in 2008, memoriam took a subtler form Wednesday. There, at the booth where the actor and his television family sat eating onion rings before the show’s final credits rolled in 2007, a small plastic sign simply reading “Reserved” was placed to mark Gandolfini’s absence.


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