For an actor, too much success in one role can restrict other career prospects. That’s what happened to James Gandolfini, in the years before he died on Wednesday, apparently of a heart attack, while on holiday in Italy. He was 51.
Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano may be the best-known mobster in fiction – or non-fiction, for that matter. From 1999 until 2007 on television, and ever since on DVD and other media, this mafioso was, and is, an object of fascination, at once repulsive and appealing.
Bringing such a complicated and extreme character to convincing life is the mark of a truly great talent, and paradoxically the magnitude of his accomplishment on The Sopranos made it harder for Gandolfini to slip into other characters in other productions.
Returning to his acting roots, he was nominated for a Tony Award on the Broadway stage in 2009, and he played a gamut of roles in minor movies. But few who saw him as a military officer or a mayor in those films will have been able to suppress the memory of a New Jersey mobster with an unhappy wife and too much anxiety.
And now he will get no more chances. Still, a character as compelling as Tony Soprano is a legacy any actor would be proud to leave.