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appreciation

James Gandolfini: The face of an actor

His chunky face had a bit of Fred Flintstone to it, with his misshapen nose and wide gills. There really could be something cartoony about it, especially when accompanied by his voice, which was alternately that of a New Jersey teenager and a kind of primitive thunder.

It was a face that could equally accommodate sweet laughter and icy cruelty, when his eyes would half-recede behind his eyelids and his lips would pull back to reveal teeth. When he brought down the dome of his forehead and looked out at a person, you knew trouble was afoot. Deep in his face, you could see that he was still his mother’s son, hurt and demoralized, but that he was also a stone cold killer.

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It was an unforgettably individual face. The late James Gandolfini made Tony Soprano into a specific man, worlds away from the fabled and sometimes generic mobsters we’re more accustomed to finding in entertainment. That was one of the breakthroughs of “The Sopranos,” that it wasn’t a romanticized portrait of the mafia like “The Godfather” so much as a look at tacky losers who wanted to be like the guys in the movies. Gandolfini’s mob boss exuded a two-bit lowlife quality, with only a feeble connection to Old World honor codes that once seemed to turn made men into a royal court.

With Gandolfini’s Tony, the mythic and elegant mobster was dead — a myth that continues to rot as the country watches the Whitey Bulger trial unfold in a torrent of self-serving lies and cowardice.

Gandolfini’s face was almost always the focal point of “The Sopranos,” the show that opened up the literary potential of serial TV to the world. With his thuggish, rough-hewn features at its center, the series undermined another cultural myth — that TV viewers mostly wanted to watch good-looking heroes and stories of redemption. We were in fact willing — hungry, as the ratings proved — to undergo the moral challenge of watching a corrupt man who looked a little like Jackie Gleason, studying his eyes as they shifted from genial to sociopathic, wondering about our own moral bearings as we were drawn to him.

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Gandolfini was able to make us root for this guy despite all the damning and bloody evidence urging us to write him off. That was one of Gandolfini’s best professional achievements, keeping audiences attracted and hoping – right until the final moments of the series — that Tony would survive and, perhaps, triumph. You could understand why Dr. Melfi kept on trying with him. It didn’t matter that we’d seen Tony turn from a panting puppy dog into a ruthless killer in a matter of seconds. Gandolfini made Tony enough of an everyman that we could compartmentalize our judgment — just as Tony compartmentalized his violent acts.

While Gandolfini led us through Tony’s story, he and show creator David Chase made the world of cable irresistible. Suddenly, after a decade ignoring the few original series that aired on channels across the great TV divide, mainstream viewers were following Tony Soprano to some of those weird numbers on their cable box. Cable TV was no longer a bridge too far. The revolution was on.

Soon other cable channels were building anti-heroes in the manner of Gandolfini’s creation, including Vic Mackey on “The Shield,” Dexter Morgan on “Dexter,” and Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” As Bryan Cranston wrote on Twitter on Thursday, “I owe him. Quite simply, without Tony Soprano there is no Walter White.” The Tony Soprano Effect even made it to network TV with Dr. Gregory House on Fox’s “House.” But Gandolfini was there first, with no real blueprint to follow beyond, perhaps, Dennis Franz’s extraordinary work on “NYPD Blue” as the often dislikable and always flawed Andy Sipowicz.

Yes, Gandolfini did fine work on the big screen during his career, in such movies as “True Romance,” “Get Shorty,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Killing Them Softly,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” But he will be most remembered for “The Sopranos.” The intimacy of TV gave him the opportunity to fully realize and reveal his skills and his charisma. If the way TV stretches across time can be a test of the depth of an actor’s abilities and his endurance, then Gandolfini passed with flying colors. He brought more and more dimension to Tony with each passing year, taking risks more vanity-conscious actors might have resisted. It became clear early on that we weren’t watching an actor artfully trying to look like a crook and a murderer; this was an actor who clearly didn’t do anything in a scene on “The Sopranos” unless it felt authentic. He ran with the material, fully justifying Chase’s decision to move an actor who was born to be a supporting player into the lead slot.

As news of Gandolfini’s death in Italy spread, fans felt as if they’d lost a friend. We’d gotten to know Tony Soprano better than almost any other character on TV, ever. On “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini gave us this entire man, his dreams, his fears, his strengths, his hypocrisy, his tenderness toward ducks and horses and his own children. We’d journeyed deep into the character’s soul. Take one look at a photo of Gandolfini’s face as Tony, just for a quick second, and the whole series will flash before your eyes.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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