James Gandolfini has passed away at the age of just 51, and I’m trying to work out why I have been so moved by the death of a total stranger. It’s partly because he played the toughest of roles, Tony Soprano, with a thoughtfulness and compassion beyond almost any other actor of his or any other generation. Maybe it was the gay hitman he played in The Mexican, an otherwise bland film, where you found yourself rooting for him to be happy. Of course, there is also something unbearably sad about the passing of someone who, through his performances, gave so much to so many.
But I don’t think it’s either of those. I think it’s because of the sheer humility of his path to the top. Like many in his profession, he grafted in low paid jobs for years before getting his casting in The Sopranos, a casting which by several accounts was a very great risk. They could easily have hired someone better known, or conventionally better looking. But they went for him because, despite everything against him, he was the best.
James Gandolfini was a true artist. And when I say that, I mean that his primary joy came from the work. To him, the craft was first. We artists live in an age – maybe we have always been in such an age – where we are continually reminded that, in order to be successful, we must be pushy and ruthless and overbearing and aggressive. And, whenever many of us are told such things, we quietly think “but can’t my work just speak for itself? If I produce work of sufficient beauty, won’t that alone make me shine”?
That’s why James Gandolfini was and will forever remain such a wonderful example. From the accounts and anecdotes emerging today, he was a warm and humble man who made the very best of his talent. He reminds us, vitally, that it’s possible to make it all the way, and not be a brute or a diva. We are so often told that an artist’s work should be viewed separately from their personal life, that how they treated others has no bearing on their legacy, but I have always disagreed with that. My greatest inspirations have always been artists whose gifts and achievements were matched only by their sense of humanity, which is why I think I will always have Kurt Vonnegut on a pedestal. For his work, and the life that he led, it looks like Gandolfini should be on one too.