It is a fate common to great actors whose most enduring success comes on television that the highest praise they receive is actually a trap concealed inside a compliment. Referring to someone’s “iconic role” or “indelible performance” can be a way of saying that a performer could really do only one thing, and his legacy is that he did it perfectly. With the sudden death of James Gandolfini at the horribly young age of 51, all of us who loved and admired his work are, naturally, going to spend a lot of time thinking about The Sopranos, 86 hours of television that was not simply the perfect marriage of actor and role, but the exceedingly rare instance of an actor expanding the possibilities of the medium by the sheer force of his talent, daring, and commitment.
There were many great TV performances before HBO chose Gandolfini over Michael Rispoli and Steven Van Zandt, the other contenders to play New Jersey waste management consultant Tony Soprano, but when viewers saw what Gandolfini was doing with the part that David Chase had given him, it was, in a way, news: The fact that television could accommodate a character like Tony, and a performance like Gandolfini’s made the medium feel bigger, less constrained, more dangerous and exciting. And it wasn’t an illusion: James Gandolfini left television in better shape than it was in when he found it.