James Gandolfini, the burly 51-year-old star of HBO's suburban gangster drama "The Sopranos," created a moment in America's fragmented culture that is hard to duplicate. Though only a relatively small number of people have actually seen his portrayal of Tony Soprano, the New Jersey crime boss with the dysfunctional home life, practically everyone knows the character.
Mr. Gandolfini died of a heart attack Wednesday while vacationing in Italy. The news triggered an outpouring of grief on social media from actors and fans alike. Critics were the most effusive in their praise. The consensus was Mr. Gandolfini's award-winning portrayal of a mob boss suffering from panic attacks paved the way for a wave of equally flawed, but appealing TV characters.
In so doing, Mr. Gandolfini changed viewers' expectations of who and what they could root for. Did they really want a criminal to get away with murder just because they got to know him through his home life? Did the fact that Tony Soprano had issues with his wife, mother and kids make him too easy to identify with?
James Gandolfini was a gifted actor with many rewarding roles in his career, but nothing as iconic as his six seasons as the patriarch on "The Sopranos." He was the reason Americans decided that crime could pay -- as long as it involved just Tony Soprano.