There's a distinction to be made between dying too young and dying too soon. The first connotes unfulfilled promise: Heath Ledger, for instance, was barely beginning to realize himself as both an actor and a human being. Moviegoers can only guess what he might have gone on to. When it comes to James Gandolfini, on the other hand, we knew—we'd learned, we'd seen—what he was capable of. All we were asking for was another quarter-century or so of basking in it.
Granted, that "we" is generationally skewed. However awed the middle-aged likes of me may have been by Ledger's talent, twentysomethings no doubt felt his loss more keenly. But until I got busy Facebooking—the modern wake—after Gandolfini's sudden death at age 51 on Wednesday, I hadn't fully realized how much people (OK, let's be accurate: men) in my age bracket had come to think of him as our guy. Not only the best we had, but the one we felt the most intimate with—and the most defined by.
That was mostly Tony Soprano's doing, of course. Personally, I was never a huge fan of the later seasons of David Chase's mob opera, when it devolved into nothing more than a flaccidly repetitive show about goombahs in Jersey—inspiring a kind of devotion I mistrusted, since it seemed to reflect the upscale audience's own narcissism and was bereft of the anguish that true identification with Tony should have provoked. Instead, fans just waited for him to explode in pretty much the same way their forebears had waited for Ralph Kramden to say "Bang, zoom, Alice! Right to the moon" on The Honeymooners, and for the same reason: They'd have felt deprived otherwise.
Interestingly, Gandolfini himself groused more than once at season-renewal time that he didn't know what was left to say about this guy. For my money, The Sopranos' debut season had said it all, not just about Tony-the-hood but—far more evocatively—Tony the boomer, a metaphorical representation of his and my contemporaries as youth skipped away like a Bada Bing stripper with a better offer. From my first sight of Gandolfini and those famous ducks in the premiere, I felt a shock of affinity that made his being a mobster irrelevant. Oh, sure, I'd noticed midlife creeping up on me and my peers before then—but now it was here, in the unexpected form of a burly man in a terrycloth robe with a look on his face at once beatific and pleading.
Even Gandolfini couldn't sustain that level of poetry single-handedly. But give him credit for stubbornly resisting the temptation—if it was one—to turn Tony as "lovable" as All In The Family's bigoted Archie Bunker, in the way so many actors on long-running shows end up slacking off by sentimentalizing their characters to pander to the audience's affection. (To be fair, that's sometimes the producer's doing, not theirs.) Tony stayed brutish, thwarted, malignant, yearning and malaise-ridden to the end, and delivering those goods apparently took a lot out of the actor who played him. My GQ colleague (and pal) Brett Martin's book on the rise of blue-chip cable dramas, Difficult Men, includes a telltale contrast between Gandolfini's ordeals and TV wife Edie Falco's sang-froid. Though she could just switch it off at the end of the day, he was often an emotional wreck, prone to sudden disappearances when he couldn't take it anymore.
The turmoil never showed up on-screen, though—or else showed up purely as Tony's psychodrama, never Gandolfini's. Refreshingly, despite his total commitment to the role, he was contemptuous of bloviating about his own craft: "I'm an actor," he once told an interviewer. "I do a job and I go home. Why are you interested in me? You don't ask a truck driver about his job." Call that a pose or a defense mechanism if you like, but it was a good one. The blunt common-man bit was part of what we dug about him.
Simple, though, he never was. Given just a few more years, he might have accomplished the near-impossible for an actor so beloved for an iconic TV role. That is, he might have made us forget Tony Soprano—or, at least, see Tony as just one panel in a gallery of extraordinary performances. In last year's Killing Them Softly, Gandolfini risked invidious comparisons by playing another sort of mafioso: a boozy, past-his-prime hit man recruited by Brad Pitt's mob fixer to take out a scapegoat. In his big scene, however—an alternately maudlin, brutal, self-deluding quasi-monologue that dooms him as Pitt silently realizes his old henchman is overdue for the glue factory—any association with The Sopranos just melted away, and not because Gandolfini was going out of his way to stress the differences. He just was that man, convincing us he'd never been anyone else. At once subtle and elemental, utterly uncontrived, it may be the finest work he ever did.
If anything, he was developing a new calm as an actor. Not that I can remember him ever looking ill at ease in a role, with the possible exception of his Tiny Duffy in the Sean Penn remake of All The King's Men—though that perfect train wreck of a movie ensured that nobody would come off well, right down to whoever did Kate Winslet's eyebrows. But after years of blustering on David Chase's payroll, Gandolfini seemed entranced with getting his effects as quietly and unshowily as possible. As the Pentagon brass hat in In The Loop, he went from amused and cynical power player to stricken Cassandra and back without you ever spotting the seams. In his scenes as CIA director Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty, the beauty of his performance was that he understood Panetta would never need to call attention to himself. Anywhere except the Oval Office, he'd be the biggest cheese in the room by definition, making asserting as much both redundant and self-diminishing.
Even more than Tony Soprano, those performances are a measure of what we'll be missing. Because we know we're Gandolfini-less, any number of earlier ones are bound to look even more like treasure now: the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, for one, is a movie I've got a sudden urge to revisit. (Heck, I'll settle for Crimson Tide.) If I also find myself imagining Gandolfini in a project no one sane would risk—a remake of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil—that's mostly because no other contemporary actor so deserves Marlene Dietrich's eulogy in the original: "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"