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The Sopranos: Mob Rule

The wiseguys of HBO's "The Sopranos" take a shot at another season of the award-winning show.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

(continued from page 1)

That neurotic wiseguy is compellingly portrayed by Gandolfini, who, before the character of Tony Soprano was born, was a journeyman 37-year-old actor with a bunch of largely insignificant movie credits -- although he had been noticed in supporting roles in True Romance and Get Shorty.

But then, he was surprisingly cast as Tony Soprano, and his critically lauded portrayal of the complex, sensitive, violent and confused Mafia boss has brought him the instant fame he says he never thought would be his. Last September, Gandolfini won the Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a dramatic television series.

Caryn James, the chief television critic for The New York Times and one of the show's earliest supporters, gives Gandolfini a large measure of credit for the program's popularity, although she also cites the consistency of the writing and the depth of the other characters.

I think a big part of the appeal is that Tony is the good guy and the bad guy rolled into one, James says. Even when he's killing people or doing things that are vile, Gandolfini creates such understanding and sympathy for this character that you root for him and you understand him. He's really the focus of the show. Without him it wouldn't work nearly as well.

Gandolfini has a balding pate and a very noticeable belly protruding above his belt, neither of which has hindered his rise to stardom or his standing as a sex symbol. Fame and praise do not sit easily on the burly Gandolfini frame. Even after two successful seasons and great anticipation for the third, he is still uncomfortable in the spotlight, and especially doing interviews. He once turned down a profile in The New York Times, saying that it would have been out of character for him to grant one. (I do a job, he once told People magazine. A carpenter does a job. He doesn't have to do an interview about the job he did.)

It's just that I'm not very good at interviews, he says at the start of a brief one he has agreed to on the show's set.

The actor's uncharacteristic modesty continues in his assessment of the show's success -- he places it squarely on the shoulders of producer Chase, and specifically cites the ensemble acting. There's a lot of heart, a lot of poetry, in the writing, Gandolfini says. What audiences like in the show is that there is a great deal of imperfection in the characters. In a lot of television shows, the characters end up making the right choice, they end up doing the right thing. I heard David Chase say once that people don't lie to themselves on network television. The characters in ?The Sopranos' lie to themselves all the time.

In real life there are a lot of gray areas, Gandolfini adds, and audiences see that in our characters. They identify with that and they laugh at it. In a way it's like watching Jackie Gleason make mistakes and lie to himself on The Honeymooners.' It's funny, but in a lot of ways it's also tragic.

What keeps Tony together, Gandolfini says, is his family. Tony is very much in love with his wife, and he's very much in love with his daughter, and he's very much in love with his son. It keeps him grounded. Without his family, he would be a complete disaster.

What splits Tony apart is the terrible clash between his public and private lives. There's this scene in the first season, he says, in episode 5 titled College. Tony is sitting at Bowdoin College in Maine, the patient and caring father waiting for Meadow to come out from an interview. But he has just killed a former mobster who turned rat and testified for the government. And on the wall is a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne, the college's most notable alumnus: no man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.

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