James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Sopranoby Dan Bischoff
James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano is the first biography of the actor who died, in June 2013 at age 51, widely recognized as one of the bestand most definingactors of his generation. The book is informed by fresh interviews with Sopranos actors, the star's acting teachers and coaches, his childhood/i>/i>
James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano is the first biography of the actor who died, in June 2013 at age 51, widely recognized as one of the bestand most definingactors of his generation. The book is informed by fresh interviews with Sopranos actors, the star's acting teachers and coaches, his childhood friends, buddies from his days as a nightclub bouncer, and Hollywood figures including the directors of his posthumously released films.
Bischoff decodes Gandolfini's portrayal of mobsters and bad guys from his breakout role in True Romance with Patricia Arquette to the television series role that made his career, and his portrayals of real people like Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty. Gandolfini's personal life--from his marriages and family interactions to his deep friendships with his fellow cast membersenriches and enlivens this book, and deepens our understanding of the star. James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano is a fascinating look at Gandolfini's complicated relationship to his roots, to the role that made him wealthy beyond his imagination, and to American notions of masculinity, power and fame. Even as he scaled the heights of his profession, creating a TV character as vivid as Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker and as volcanic as Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, Gandolfini remained a reluctant celebrity dedicated more to his craft than to his career. James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano delivers a textured, multilayered portrait of the on- and off-screen life of a complex, talented man who rose from an Italian immigrant family in northern New Jersey to join the ranks of America's most iconic actors, and whose death is mourned.
A bittersweet biography of an intensely private artist. Unerringly tight-lipped throughout his career, actor James Gandolfini (1961–2013) exists as a kind of burly but amiable cypher who defies close examination. That he somehow managed, despite his media-shy disposition, to convince legions of Sopranos fans that they actually knew what made him tick is testament to his considerable powers as an artist. With little in the way of original source material to draw upon, Star-Ledger art critic Bischoff relies heavily on Gandolfini's impressive collection of work to help define his subject's remarkable life. What he finds, despite Gandolfini's undeniably magnetic presence on screen, is a remarkable actor who nevertheless found the process of acting incredibly taxing—and a genuinely "regular guy" who felt insecure about his craft. "About a week before a production was supposed to start filming, we'd get a letter, copied to the director, in which Jim would give everybody an out, asking them if they were sure they thought he could do the part," says Gandolfini's manager Mark Armstrong. "And he'd always include the names of three actors he thought were available who could do a better job." Bischoff makes sure to include ample insider Sopranos information, largely focusing on ever-increasing sums of money and the ensuing contract battles. However, the author shines in his behind-the-scenes explorations. In trying to divine who this intrinsically "Jersey guy" was, Bischoff reminds readers that Gandolfini passed away while vacationing with his young son and that the women he'd loved at various points in his life found it possible to sit near each other at his funeral. In his case, the absence of chatter surrounding his possible failings speaks volumes about his success as a human being. Not the last word but an earnest, endearing homage to an outstanding actor.
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Read an Excerpt
All Roads Lead to Rome
It was not unlike the way The Sopranos ended, in Holsten's ice cream parlor in Bloomfield, New Jersey: One minute Tony's changing the jukebox to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," waiting for his daughter, Meadow, to join the rest of the family for onion rings. And then, fade to black.
Only this time, the restaurant was in a five-star hotel in Rome, built on third-century Roman ruins across the street from a church Michelangelo designed for the last intact ancient tepidarium, in the Baths of Diocletian. James Gandolfini was in Italy with his son, Michael, on vacation. They'd arrived on the twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles the night before, and had just had "a beautiful day" sightseeing. Jim told friends he'd been looking forward to a "boys' trip," where he and Michael, thirteen, could explore their Italian heritage together — it was something Tony Soprano had said he wanted to do after touring Naples in the second season, let his kids see "all this stuff they come from."
In the afternoon, he took Michael to the Vatican. He bought a couple of rosaries for his sisters, blessed by Pope Francis and promising indulgences, the proceeds dedicated to the convent that works for Rome's poor. Then they went to the Musei Vaticani to see, among much else, the mummies and sarcophagi in the Ancient Egyptian galleries. They were photographed there standing between two illustrated coffin lids by a pair of American tourists from Philadelphia.
They left the Vatican in the middle of one of those Roman afternoons in June when the rooflines waver in the sun and the fountain spray evaporates before it hits the pool. They were waiting for James's sister Leta, who was arriving from Paris that night after meetings with her dress company, American Rag. They were going to enjoy a few days in the curving Boscolo Hotel Exedra on the Piazza della Repubblica until Jim made a scheduled appearance at the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, where he'd do an appearance with an old castmate, Marisa Tomei.
It was just James and Michael that night in the hotel's outdoor restaurant, still trying to get past the jet lag and fall into sync with Italian time. They ate, lingered over drinks and dessert, and started drifting up to their room around 9:00 P.M.
And then, fade to black.
At least, that's how it felt to many. Michael found his father on the floor of the bathroom in their suite at around ten that night and called the desk for help. An emergency crew from the nearby Policlinico Umberto I was there in minutes; Gandolfini was still alive, even as they wheeled him, bare-chested and wrapped in a hotel blanket, out through the lobby. He died at the hospital of cardiac arrest, after continuous resuscitation efforts, forty minutes later. He was fifty-one years old.
At first, the world reacted the way so many had to the end of The Sopranos — with absolute shock. Then the cascade of regrets, well-wishes, and sorrow for an actor who made millions sympathize with a stone-cold killer for almost ten years, becoming part of the American family. Everyone expected many more years, and many more characters, each one subtly reshaping the working-class hero he'd become — such as Enough Said, a romantic comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Fox Searchlight, expected for 2014 (the company would put it into quick turnaround after Gandolfini's death), about a woman who falls in love with her friend's husband. Slowly, the realization sunk in that this fade-out meant something else — there would be no Sopranos movie.
Ever since "Don't Stop Believin'" went into its last verse in that Bloomfield ice cream parlor, every fan of The Sopranos had been asking when their favorite mob family would get its big-budget, Godfather-type, silver-screen treatment, as if that would somehow be better. Gandolfini had been asked about it just a few days before he took off for Rome, by a TMZ paparazzo on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and he'd answered that he had no idea. The only time, he said, he was sure it would get made was when "David Chase runs out of money."
Even that won't be enough to get it made now, because there is no Sopranos without Tony Soprano. James Gandolfini's creation, from 1999–2007, of the lugubrious mob boss with such mother problems that he starts seeing a female therapist, became one of the most indelibly mythic characters of American television. Tony was a kind of cross between Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski and Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker, a raging id of greed and lust who could make you laugh at the clumsiness of his surgically precise malapropisms. Tony was "with that Senator Sanitorium" on the issue of gay rights; he could be "prostate with grief"; revenge, he believed, was "like serving cold cuts."
And yet, Tony was not a buffoon. Or anyway, not just a buffoon. Something in the alchemy of Gandolfini's performance made Tony very real to millions of Americans and fans around the world. So real that James Gandolfini's death seemed as if it had happened to a neighbor, or a relative. His death was all in the family.
And at the same time, it was Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Justified. James Gandolfini was one of those actors who changed the medium in which they performed. It's often said that he introduced an era of TV antiheroes. What he definitely did was show us a bad man who hurt other people out of his own vulnerabilities. As America went around serving cold cuts to the rest of the world after 9/11 (the Twin Towers fell within sight of some of the scenes in The Sopranos' famous opening credits), and its rusting middle-class economy barreled toward decline and collapse, that theme seemed to take on an importance far beyond TV itself.
To understand James Gandolfini, it's important to know that all roads lead to Rome — but they start in New Jersey. Where your birthplace can be an exit ramp.
"A large number of actors and musicians are from [New Jersey]," Gandolfini once told The New York Times. "We are overrepresented in the culture. You have a blue-collar, middle-class sensibility right next to one of the greatest cities in the world, which can make for some interesting creative impulses."
Like, maybe, the impulse to take a baseball bat to polite culture, or the impulse to grab pleasure hard, or just the impulse to give in to your impulses. People forget, but it's no accident that Roy Lichtenstein invented Pop Art while he was teaching at Rutgers, or that Bruce Springsteen was mourning the death of the American Dream before the media across the river realized it was sick. The state's greatest poet, William Carlos Williams, was an obstetrician serving poor, immigrant, working-class families in Paterson from a horse and buggy.
And Snooki is a real person.
The tight braiding of banality and art was The Sopranos' signature. At a time when most scripted TV shows were still shot on soundstages in Los Angeles or gussied up with exotic locales, The Sopranos featured video shoots on city street corners, in the Meadowlands swamp, at mall parking lots — it looked like it was shot out of your car window. When the audience watched Tony's crew threaten to toss a persuadable civilian off the bridge over the Great Falls in Paterson, folks around the country saw a dramatically dark and craggy waterfall, but Jerseyans saw a place they'd all trooped through on school daytrips.
The show's creator, David Chase, is himself a son of New Jersey, with his own complicated relationship to his Italian heritage and his home state. Back in the late 1970s, when Chase was starting out, he produced a genial but often topical private-eye show starring James Garner called The Rockford Files. He wrote an episode titled "Just a Coupla Guys," about aspiring Italian-American mobsters from New Jersey who would stand out like black socks on a beach in L.A. It said a lot, even then, about the sour state of mind his native state puts David Chase in.
The plot had Garner landing at Newark airport as a fellow passenger tells him how nice the city really is, that it's gotten an unfair rap. In short order, after getting off the plane, Rockford's watch, luggage, and rental car are stolen, and a little later the character is mugged on the street. The easy freedom of the California lifestyle and American abundance seem suspicious in a Jersey setting, like some kind of con. The germ of the mob comedy that The Sopranos would become was in a line spoken by the dead-eyed wannabe hitman (played by Greg Antonacci) to Garner: "I hate you guys with your convertibles and your cheeseburgers." The new suburbia was ruining America for the mob.
Native New Jerseyans have a sort of sad-sack, alsoran, second-rate phobia as their birthright, because they live on the wrong side of the river from Manhattan. It's a bit of a jinx, like the little raincloud over Al Capp's Joe Btfsplk. When David Chase finally got his mob comedy on the air at HBO, it was incredibly annoying that so many people assumed it was a knock-off of the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal vehicle, Analyze This, which opened earlier the same year. Like The Sopranos, Analyze This was a comedy about a mob boss in therapy, only this time he's a New York kingpin who grows dependent on his nebbishy Jewish shrink and needs to consult him in moments of unexpected crisis.
Cue the laughing trombones. In real life, Chase's wife, Denise, had been telling him to make a movie about his tortured relationship with his Italian-American mother in Jersey for years. Chase had been steadily pitching the idea of an Italian mob boss trying to cope with his mom and suburban assimilation before HBO signed on, and before Harold Ramis got a green-light for Analyze This.
It's like a conspiracy: nobody from Jersey ever gets credit for nothin'. Especially if they're Italian.
And yet, they're proud of it. It's just the strangest thing, that New Jerseyans believe this wellspring of bitterness and disappointment allows them to see the truth clearer, unblinkingly, while the rest of the world goes around seeing blue skies and opportunity everywhere. It's a kind of moral superiority. A kind, of course, that is in no way dented by stealing your watch.
As The Sopranos took off and drew a global audience, the intertwining of fact and fiction became even tighter. Chase hired actors from an A-list of tristate–area Italian-American actors who, over many years and many productions, had become a kind of repertory theater of big-city mobsters for Hollywood. But he hired a lot of near-amateur actors from Jersey as well, to add local color. Several of them happened to get arrested during the series, for misdemeanors and felonies. Assault, drug possession, insurance fraud, hiring someone to beat a man for not paying a debt, even second-degree murder charges were leveled against Sopranos actors. Robert Iler, who played A.J., Tony's son on the show, was arrested and pleaded guilty to mugging a pair of Brazilian tourists. The press loved these stories — it was life imitates art.
But the main claim The Sopranos laid to Jersey authenticity and art was Tony himself, or really, James Gandolfini. Like Tony, Gandolfini was born and raised in the Garden State. His father was born in Italy, outside of Milan, and his mother was born in New Jersey but raised near Naples. They spoke Italian in the home, though not to their kids.
Jim and his two sisters, Leta and Johanna, never learned Italian, but Jim said he could tell when his parents "were mad at me" in Italian.
His family had followed the great migration from Newark to the suburbs that began in the late 1950s, all the way out to Park Ridge, in Bergen County. James Joseph Gandolfini, Sr., was a World War II veteran, with a Purple Heart to show for it, despite his Italian birth. He became a bricklayer and cement mixer who wound up head custodian of Paramus Catholic High School. Jimmy Gandolfini's mother, Santa, was a school lunch lady. His father would set up loudspeakers outside the house every summer and mow the lawn in his boxers to the accompaniment of blaring Italian songs. "He was a real Guinea," his son recalled.
And maybe it was the vast conspiracy — against Italians from New Jersey, against big guys with big personalities, against the working class — that made Gandolfini reluctant to ever talk about this rich personal life, so intimately bound up with his greatest artistic creation, in public. He rarely gave interviews to the press.
"I'm not trying to be difficult," he told one of the few journalists he would open up to, The Star-Ledger's Matt Zoller Seitz, in 1999. "It's not that I'm afraid to reveal personal stuff. ... It's just that I really, genuinely don't see why people would find that sort of thing so interesting."
He'd interrupt journalists who asked about him by saying "Boriiiing!" and try to change the subject. For an actor who appeared so unguarded on the screen or stage, his reticence about his background seemed like a mystery.
And yet, he acknowledged several times that he'd made Tony up out of his own biography. "The character is a good fit," Gandolfini said. "Obviously, I'm not a mobster, and there's other aspects of the guy I'm not familiar with, like how comfortable he is with violence. But in most of the ways that count, I have to say, yeah — the guy is me."
How he got that across on the home screen was a private matter, however. Like a lot of serious dramatic actors, he hated the froufrou and flattery of publicity and promotion. That stuff seemed to eat away at his self-esteem, rather than buck it up (in that he was again like Brando, and a lot of other tough-guy male leads, including Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin). There was something that kept him from wholeheartedly accepting his celebrity or the privileges it could command.
Well, some of them. The ones that weren't, you know, Jerseyan.
Vanity Fair once asked him about what it was like to go from being working class to international celebrity wealth (he left an estate valued in the press at anywhere from $6 million to $70 million at his death). Gandolfini mulled the question, hemmed and hawed. "Money is good! So I'm very happy about that," he announced at last. "All the fuss during The Sopranos really was pretty ridiculous. None of us expected it to last, and it lasted almost ten years. Honestly? I don't think I'm that different. I've lived in the same apartment for years. I've kept a lot of the same friends. I'm still grumpy and miserable. ... But in a good way!"
It was as if, after thinking of himself as a struggling actor for so long, Gandolfini didn't want to lose touch with who he was. He did stay loyal to old Jersey friends, even as he started hanging out with the likes of Alec Baldwin and Brad Pitt. Friends like Tom Richardson, now an executive at Attaboy Films, Gandolfini's production company, and Mark Ohlstein, a chiropractor, and Vito Bellino, an ad executive for The Ledger. They'd hang out with each other and their families, go to the beach, and watch Rutgers football together.
Gandolfini did TV commercials for Rutgers' Scarlet Knights football team as The Sopranos was reaching the height of its popularity. In 2002, he got Michael Imperioli, who played his nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, on The Sopranos, to direct one that showed Richardson, Ohlstein, and Bellino coming out onto the field at the fifty-yard line, congratulating themselves on how Gandolfini's celebrity had gotten them "real close" to the action. They ask what it had cost him to get them there, and Gandolfini says, "Me? Nothing." A moment later they're shown holding the Scarlet Knight mascot costume, plus the two halves of the costume for his horse. Ohlstein looks into the camera and says, sarcastically, "Close. Real close."
Nobody escapes the Jersey curse — I don't care who they think they know.
Never hitting the top of your arc, always bumping against some invisible ceiling, is what Tony, and The Sopranos, was all about. James Gandolfini symbolized that inbred New Jersey pessimism, and made the rest of the world love him for it. Add a few more pounds and a hint of the anger and you've got Chris Christie, who may run for president in a few years, something I doubt anybody his size and temperament could have done before Tony Soprano.
Most of the planet lives with its nose against the glass today, looking, the way New Jersey looks across the river to Manhattan, at someone's more successful life somewhere on the other side of the screen. For white men of a certain age it's almost endemic. The paradox of James Gandolfini's life is that by expressing that feeling with frustrated passion, by making us care for the inarticulate longing of a very conflicted but common man, he was able to pass through the screen, move to Tribeca, become rich and famous — for about thirteen lucky years.
Excerpted from "James Gandolfini"
Copyright © 2014 Dan Bischoff.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DAN BISCHOFF is the award-winning art critic for the Star-Ledger, where he has been covering art and culture in New Jersey and New York since 1996. Previously, as the chief political and investigative editor at The Village Voice, he developed pieces that won several awards. Bischoff's writing has been published in the Voice, Mother Jones, The Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, ARTnews, The Deal, CBS MoneyWatch.com, and elsewhere. He lives in South Orange, New Jersey.
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