James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano: born to be bad

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When you finish reading Milton's "Paradise Lost," there's never a doubt about who the most interesting character is -- Satan.

He eats up all the scenery and has the best lines. None of the other devils come close. Satan is revealed as a neurotic angel with major Daddy issues that eventually cause him to rebel. His spectacular fall from grace is as riveting as it is inevitable.

Watching the late James Gandolfini's performance as Tony Soprano, the conflicted suburban dad and New Jersey crime boss, during six seasons of "The Sopranos" was a lot like taking stock of Satan's machinations in Milton's epic poem. It may sound vaguely blasphemous, but it is impossible to read "Paradise Lost" and not root for Satan, the hero and villain of the narrative.

Like Satan, everything Tony Soprano did from the moment "The Sopranos" went on the air in 1999 to its final installment in 2007 was a violation of the sacred; still, we couldn't take our eyes off Mr. Gandolfini's award-winning performance. With his hulking frame, thinning hair and lazy eyes, the former character actor was television's least likely leading man, but he had an excess of the negative charisma that make the most complicated roles possible.

Tony's Mommy issues, his dysfunctional marriage to Carmela Soprano (played with equal brilliance by Edie Falco) and even his panic attacks helped viewers who wouldn't have minded seeing him get the electric chair in real life rationalize the violence he inflicted on friends and foes on the television show.

Somehow, if Tony Soprano, a man deeply immersed in the secular rituals of psychoanalysis, found it necessary to murder someone, well, they must have had it coming. He may have been a remorseless killer, but he was also deeply pragmatic and principled in his own dark way.

Tony Soprano navigated a remorseless path in a world where all the demons wore crucifixes and gave lip service to middle-class morality even as they were committing adultery and killing people.

Until "Breaking Bad" came along a few years later, no other show, and arguably no other character in the history of television, had done as much to illustrate the power of cognitive dissonance in everyday life. He was literally a murdering, lying hypocrite -- and we loved him for it.

David Chase, the show's idiosyncratic creator, may have created Tony Soprano based on the "made men" he knew growing up in North Jersey in the 1960s, but Mr. Gandolfini animated the character with large chunks of his own spirit.

A lesser actor would've made Tony Soprano more repulsive and impossible to relate to, but Mr. Gandolfini was always conscious of the duality of human nature and exploited that understanding to the hilt. That's why he crafted his character to reflect our messy human reality, not our lofty ideal of who we are.

In his brilliant upcoming book, "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution -- from 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,' " author Brett Martin devotes the prologue to the unstable nature of Mr. Gandolfini's genius and how it paved the way for today's quality television.

As beloved as he was, James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday while vacationing in Italy, was a difficult man to work with and caused angst among the cast and crew every day of production. Yet he proved to be the most necessary of actors in the end.

Without his ruthless genius, there would have been no precedent for Vic Mackey, Walter White, Stringer Bell, Al Swearengen or any of the characters who make cable television superior to the movies for the first time in history. Milton would be proud.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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