James Gandolfini, who died suddenly at 51 on Wednesday (June 19), will forever be remembered for playing Tony Soprano. And rightfully so — together with writer David Chase, he created one of the deepest and most compelling characters in recent TV history.
Gandolfini also had a varied and often very interesting film and stage career. Pre-“Sopranos” he often played heavies, and even after his star turn on the show he remained a character actor at heart, but later in his career more leading roles came his way. Here’s a look at some of his more memorable roles.
“True Romance”: After a few small roles in movies and a supporting part in the 1992 Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” opposite Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange*, Gandolfini got his first breakout role in the Quentin Tarantino-written thriller. He played Virgil, a mob enforcer who makes a mild first impression (see below) but soon reveals his brutal side.
(*In “Streetcar,” Gandolfini played Steve, the upstairs neighbor of Stanley and Stella Kowalski. His future TV sister, Aida Turturro, played Steve’s wife, Eunice.)
“Get Shorty”: Gandolfini had a smallish role in this standout adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel and is best remembered for getting thrown down the stairs by John Travolta‘s Chilli Palmer. But his muscleman character, Bear, also has a sweetly human side that comes through even in his limited screen time.
“The Mexican”: After two seasons (and one Emmy) on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini played a supporting role in this Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts movie. “The Mexican” was seen as something of a misfire at the time, but Gandolfini’s performance as a gay hitman was a high point.
“Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq”: Gandolfini produced this moving HBO documentary about wounded Iraq veterans and their struggles upon returning home. He also appears on screen, interviewing some of the vets. The project earned three Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding nonfiction special.
“In the Loop”: In a rare out-and-out comedy role, Gandolfini played an American general caught up in this film spun from the brilliant U.K. comedy series “The Thick of It.” He more than holds his own in a cast of comedy veterans, as this (NSFW) scene with Peter Capaldi‘s verbally lethal Malcolm Tucker demonstrates.
“God of Carnage”: Gandolfini scored a Tony Award nomination (as did co-stars Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, who won, as did the play itself) in this play about one very long night for two couples hashing out a schoolyard fight between their offstage sons. Gandolfini got to showcase both his comedic chops and a bit of his menacing Tony Soprano side.
“Welcome to the Rileys”: One of the few true leading-man roles Gandolfini had outside “The Sopranos.” He played a man, still grieving his teenage daughter’s death years earlier, who befriends a teenage prostitute (Kristen Stewart) while on a business trip. It was well-received at Sundance in 2010 but barely released, which is a shame — the relationship between Gandolfini and Stewart is quite affecting.
“Cinema Verite”: HBO’s movie about the making of the groundbreaking PBS series “An American Family” felt surprisingly superficial, but per usual Gandolfini turned in a strong performance as TV producer Craig Gilbert.
“Zero Dark Thirty”: Gandolfini had a “secret” role as then-CIA director Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow‘s film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s not a big part, but Gandolfini is once again fully invested.
What were your favorite James Gandolfini roles?