James Gandolfini just was a teddy bear. Seeing him snuggling with one on Sesame Street seemed right to people who knew the man behind the character. It was possible to fully believe in a James Gandolfini who was scared of the dark and needed his nightlight and his teddy bear, who was scared of haircuts and liked getting a lollipop from his barber. And if Zoe’s not the Muppet I would want a reassuring hug from personally, at least she’s not trying to force him to accept one from Rocco.
He played a lot of tough guys. It was the look. He was a big, strong, rough-looking guy. When, as Tony Soprano, he did Tony Soprano-type things, it wasn’t surprising, because he looked like the kind of guy who would do that sort of thing. It’s not hard to believe him as one of Stanley Kowalski’s beer-drinking, poker-playing friends in A Streetcar Named Desire or the various mob enforcers he played over the course of his career. Thug? Tough guy? Heavy? Those were all roles you’d expect from James Gandolfini.
I am in the decided minority of people who far preferred Romance and Cigarettes to The Sopranos. I just couldn’t get into it, and Romance and Cigarettes worked for me a lot better. No, I don’t know why. But it was definitely a departure for Gandolfini, a chance to play more of a romantic lead. Not that Romance and Cigarettes is the sort of sweet, pure love story you get from some musicals, of course; I’m given to understand that Enough Said is closer to that, but I haven’t seen that one yet.
I’m not going to say that I picked up on Gandolfini’s discomfort with Tony Soprano, but he wasn’t fully onboard with the character. He thought Tony was yet another stereotypical mobbed-up Italian, and he disliked portraying the violence on a personal level. Gandolfini was something of a pacifist, it seems, though he did once step in when he saw a woman being mugged, which you figure scared the bejeezus out of the mugger. He was also well known to people who worked with him as a total softy, the kind of big, sweet guy where I instinctively want to use the word “galoot.”
There was a lot to James Gandolfini that wasn’t Tony Soprano. Not just his Broadway appearances as Steve from Streetcar or Charley from On the Waterfront, either—a fully different person who could’ve had a fully different career were Hollywood not so obsessed with appearances. When you get right down to it, he looked too ordinary to play a lot of the roles it would’ve been most interesting to see him in, because even in the ‘70s, which people hype a lot for having not-conventionally-attractive leads, there still wasn’t much room for someone who looked ordinary to get the girl.