I probably cannot put into words how I feel about the death of James Gandolfini at the age of fifty-one. He was exactly eight years older than me, and also born and raised in New Jersey. It’s not his role as Tony Soprano that drew me to him. It was his Jersey-Boy status. You either know what this means or you don’t, but it can’t be explained. My great great grandfather on my mother’s side probably had more in common with Gandolfini’s father than anyone else in my family. He came over from Italy and settled in Hoboken. He raised his son to be a doctor. Gandolfini became an accomplished actor.
There is nothing romantic about organized crime in Northern New Jersey, but the genius of The Sopranos was its ability to mesh ordinary day-to-day life in the Jersey suburbs with the life of mobsters. Being a crime boss didn’t exempt you from disciplinary problems at school or having to get your son to football practice.
It was the ordinary stuff that I found most compelling because it was a show that was at least in part about raising a family in New Jersey. And no one needed to tell Gandolfini how to play that part because he had lived it.
As with Springsteen, Gandolfini’s work had a universal appeal, but it sprang from a unique experience in place and time that spoke uniquely to me.
It feels like losing a brother, but also like losing an ambassador who helped explain a unique people, however imperfectly, to the country at large. He was a giant talent.