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James Gandolfini Will Always Be Tony Soprano, and That's Okay

The closest Tony Soprano ever comes to saving his appalling soul is late in Season 1 of “The Sopranos.” His daughter Meadow’s friend has become depressed to the point of cutting herself (“a suicidal gesture,” Dr. Melfi memorably clarifies) and the cause, Tony learns, is that the talented high school soccer coach—his daughter’s soccer coach, with unfettered access to his daughter—has been sleeping with Meadow’s friend. Tony is all set to kill the coach: Tony Soprano has killed men for much smaller offenses; he kills for business. He gets extremely drunk at the Bada Bing, the strip club his consigliere owns, ready to make the call. But he doesn’t. Instead, the police are notified, and the coach is arrested. Tony enters his house, completely wasted on booze and pills, singing and laughing and dancing, and (as Meadow watches) tells his wife, Carmela, “I didn’t hurt nobah-.” He adds: “Call the shrink. Tell her the [unintelligible]'s gonna givah bonus.”

I’ve rewatched that scene over and over and over trying to discern which exact words are actually uttered, but I have never settled on a definitive answer. Nor should I be able to. Because when Tony Soprano gets wasted and, with unguessable emotions, informs his wife that he did not deploy his ordinary brand of vigilante justice even in the extraordinary instance in which it might be morally justifiable to do so, you can’t understand exactly what he's saying. One of the show's most eloquent moments achieves its full eloquence because James Gandolfini would give up eloquence to stay true to portraying Tony Soprano.

Gandolfini just died at 51. There is much to be said about Gandolfini as a person (he leaves behind a wife, a teenage son, and a baby daughter) and as an actor beyond “The Sopranos.” I’m not going to bother. I couldn’t ignore that Gandolfini was Tony Soprano when I saw him in In The Loop or Zero Dark Thirty, and I certainly can’t now. On Monday night, I saw Alan Alda perform Shakespeare in Central Park, and it was very clear, even though I grew up watching "M*A*S*H*," that it was not Hawkeye reading from As You Like It. I can’t imagine I could have appreciated Gandolfini as anyone other than Tony Soprano, though. Probably he wouldn't have wanted that; maybe it’s sad. But it’s the truth, and it’s a consequence of how stupendous he was in that role.

One measure of the greatness of Gandolfini’s sustained performance, over 86 long episodes, is that on those rare occasions when Tony’s viewpoint is not the show’s viewpoint—when Melfi is raped, and Tony wants to know what's happened; when Carmela goes to see a psychiatrist, who tells her to leave Tony, and then has to see Tony again; when Meadow runs into Tony at a club and he appears to be on coke—it almost turns into a second show. He pulls those scenes off, in other words, but that is only impressive because most of the show is something like a work of P.O.V. There is just nothing else like it.

I can hear the laptops clacking: Obituarists are saying that the show’s obsession with death (“In the midst of death, we are in life. Or is it the other way around?”) has prepared us for Gandolfini’s death as we are prepared for nobody else’s death; that the final scene blah blah blah; that, indeed, “Whaddya gonna do?” No. At least when we ascribe attributes of a fictional character to her author, it is not always a fallacy—the author has created the character, and so it is fair to ask what he has invested her with. Gandolfini’s achievement was different: While Tony may share things with Gandolfini, ultimately what Gandolfini does is completely efface himself, disappearing into the role completely in order to make the entire thing work.

“The Sopranos” likely would have been a pretty good show no matter who was playing Tony (unless it was Steve Van Zandt, who played Silvio and reportedly auditioned for the part). Would it have been the American masterpiece it was with anyone other than Gandolfini? To ask the question, as Christopher Hitchens used to write, is to answer it.

Actually, the last time I felt this way was when Hitchens died, a year and a half ago. I didn’t know him either, but it oddly felt so sad, because I had spent so much time in the company of his writing. Similarly, I have spent so much time in the company of Gandolfini’s acting in “The Sopranos,” and I am at least as grateful. (He was not just doing his job: That role was a calling, and whatever he was paid could not possibly have been enough.) I have read actors called “generous,” usually in reference to how their acting helps other actors look better. But the artist serves his audience, and so Gandolfini has to rank among the most generous actors in history.