There are very few television performances quite like the one James Gandolfini made when he starred in HBO’s legendary crime drama series The Sopranos in the lead role of Tony Soprano. Tony is the New Jersey-based Italian-American mob boss who tries to balance the responsibilities of his professional and personal lives.
Gandolfini had come through in films like True Romance and Get Shorty, but it was his effort as Tony Soprano for which he will always be known. He could be terrifying at one point and hilariously affable the next, making his iconic role one of the best portrayals of a TV character of all time.
However, Gandolfini’s excellent portrayal of Tony over the years looked to have taken its toll in terms of his physical and mental exertion. According to several of the actor’s fellow stars and peers, playing his most iconic character brought some buried anger to the surface when he might have been better off keeping it down.
Gandolfini employed the method acting technique when he was playing Tony and chose to always be in character, which contrasted with his co-stars, such as Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife, Carmela. Between takes, Gandolfini chose to wear Tony’s iconic robe with a mean attitude.
However, that decision drained the actor and putting so much into his excellent performance left little room for personal downtime. Gandolfini shared some of Tony’s characteristics, say, a penchant for a drink or two and a temper that could fly off the handles at any given moment without warning.
HBO executive Chris Albrecht once noted: “Tony’s struggles not only mirrored Jimmy’s struggles, they amplified Jimmy’s struggles and what Jimmy felt.” Edie Falco had also admitted that Gandolfini never got “entirely comfortable with all the attention he got”, which also took its toll on him.
The actor was known to have put weight on during The Sopranos, and Falco remembers a time when she talked about his well-being with him. “I had a conversation with Jim once where he was in very bad shape,” she said in Tinderbox. “He said to me, ‘They don’t understand what this does to me, doing this show and where I have to go’.”
Ultimately, though, Gandolfini chose to remain on the show because his co-stars and the crew depended on him to keep their jobs. Still, the actor would occasionally not show up for shoots when the pressures of the role and his fame became momentarily too much to bear.
Despite such pressures, though, all of The Sopranos cast and crew have spoken glowingly of the actor ever since he first appeared on the scene and especially since he passed away. The process was likely exhausting for Gandolfini, but like any great actor, he put the work before himself and delivered one of the best performances TV has ever known.