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James Gandolfini leaves behind a bigger-than-life impression on TV

Actor James Gandolfini and Larry Mantle in KPCC's Studio A on May 12, 2011.
Actor James Gandolfini and Larry Mantle in KPCC's Studio A on May 12, 2011.
Photo by: Karen Fritsche

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News broke yesterday that James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano on the long-running HBO smash hit “The Sopranos,” died Wednesday in an emergency room in Rome, where he was vacationing. Gandolfini, 51, worked in TV, film, and on stage, but it was in his first big role, as a New Jersey mob boss whose depression drove him into therapy, that he will be remembered for by the millions who subscribed to HBO to see the villain you loved to hate kill and emote each Sunday night.

Gandolfini’s Tony was simultaneously funny, brutal, smart, manipulative, and about as complex as a TV character can be, and in the show’s 8-year run (1999-2007), he helped redefine the gangster genre, transforming mobsters from one-dimensional cartoonish figures into vibrant, sympathetic anti-heros. The Sopranos revitalized pay television, paving the way for shows like The Wire and  Game of Thrones, and as it emerged on DVD was one of the first binge-watched television shows.

Gandolfini joined us in the AirTalk studios on May 13, 2011, while he was in Los Angeles acting in “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theater. Ten minutes into the interview, Larry turned the conversation to the character of Tony Soprano and what the character means to him now, four years after the show’s final episode, and Gandolfini’s answer reflected the complexity of his own character. “The volume of the work was all encompassing,” Gandolfini said of his time on “The Sopranos.”