Playing Tony Soprano Took A Heavy Toll On James Gandolfini

Part of the tragedy when an artist dies young is that their full potential will never be realized. James Gandolfini's death in 2013 at the age of 51 is one of the most tragic in recent Hollywood memory. Gandolfini had proved himself as a character actor throughout the 1980s and 1990s — he's a scene-stealer in "True Romance" as hitman Virgil. Still, the role he'll always be rightfully remembered for is Tony Soprano.

Gandolfini played the New Jersey mob boss from 1997 to 2007. Tony is a wholly formed character, in no small part thanks to Gandolfini. The highest compliment for his performance is he makes us feel like we're voyeurs into a real man's life. It's even more impressive since, by all accounts, Gandolfini couldn't have been more different from the character he played so well. However, according to some of Gandolfini's castmates and colleagues, playing Tony forced Gandolfini to live with demons he would've preferred to have kept buried.

Casting Tony

According to "The Sopranos Sessions" by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, James Gandolfini won the part of Tony from several finalists. Two runner-ups were Michael Rispoli and Steven Van Zandt, who, as consolation prizes, would play Jackie Aprile and Silvio Dante.

Like any self-respecting New Jerseyan, "Sopranos" creator David Chase is an E-Street Band fan. As Chase told Vanity Fair in 2012, he got the idea to cast Van Zandt in the show after seeing him give a televised speech at The Rascals' induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. According to Van Zandt (via Deadline), HBO vetoed him as the lead. So Van Zandt pitched the character of Silvio to Chase, and HBO's powers that be were more supportive of having a rock star in a supporting role.

Rispoli recounted the audition process for Tony when he guest appeared on the "Talking Sopranos" podcast (hosted by "Sopranos" alums Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa). From his recollections, it was neck and neck, but Gandolfini won out. Chase settled on Gandolfini because he thought he looked the part the most (via Vulture).

It's hard to argue that Chase the wrong call; Gandolfini made the role of Tony his own from the beginning. The pilot of "The Sopranos" contains a scene where Tony confronts Christopher (Imperioli) about his screenwriting ambitions and asks, "Are you gonna go Henry Hill on me now?" According to Chase in a DVD commentary for the episode, the scene as scripted featured Tony as calmer, but Gandolfini played it more aggressively. In the final scene, Tony lunges at Chris and holds him inches away with a striking glare.

The demons

Brett Martin's "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad" details Gandolfini's acting method (via Indiewire). Unlike some of the show's cast members, who could separate from their character (e.g. Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano), Gandolfini attempted to always be "on" as Tony. He often wore the character's famous white bathrobe between takes.

While it produced spectacular results, this was draining Gandolfini himself. That he put so much of himself into his performance is precisely why it took so much out of him. It wasn't just that he was playing an evil man, it's that some of Tony's flaws — a temper and indulgence in his vices — were ones he shared.

Interviewed by James Andrew Miller for "Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers," former HBO exec Chris Albrecht bluntly stated, "Tony's struggles not only mirrored Jimmy's struggles, they amplified Jimmy's struggles and what Jimmy felt." Even the show's success weighed on him. Gandolfini preferred privacy, and his newfound fame didn't mix well with that. At the 2013 Emmys, Falco eulogized her former costar, saying, "One got the feeling Jim was never entirely comfortable with all the attention he got ... usually because he said it every chance he got."

Gandolfini had previously experienced addiction with both alcohol and drugs. According to "Tinderbox," he'd previously been arrested for DUI in 1997. Being in such a negative headspace for months at a time pushed him right back into his illness. The physical effects on his health are clear onscreen; Gandolfini clearly gained weight between the first and last seasons of "The Sopranos."

Absent without leave

In "Tinderbox," (via Insider) Edie Falco recalled: "I had a conversation with Jim once where he was in very bad shape. He said to me, 'They don't understand what this does to me, doing this show and where I have to go.'" The reason he kept doing it? The rest of the cast and crew depended on him for their livelihoods. That doesn't mean he was always the most reliable actor to work with.

According to "Difficult Men" (via GQ), Gandolfini would sometimes miss shooting days for "The Sopranos." In January 2002, during shooting for the season 4 episode "Eloise," he failed to show up to set for three days and no one was able to contact him. Writer/producer Terence Winter recalls that during that time, he heard a radio broadcast about a tragedy in Hollywood while driving, "It was some drummer for a band, but I thought, 'Holy s***! He's dead.'" Each time he didn't show up, Gandolfini felt guilty about the disruptions to shooting his absence called and would lavish the cast and crew with gifts.

It wasn't just his professional life where Gandolfini was having problems. When Gandolfini's ex-wife Marcy Wudarski filed for divorce, she said he would punch himself in the face when they argued. According to "Tinderbox," Gandolfini's colleagues and family tried to stage an intervention at then-HBO CEO Chris Albrecht's Manhattan apartment in 2003. The actor refused to take part.

Knowing this makes parts of the show harder to swallow. For starters, there's the disastrous intervention for Christopher's heroin addiction in "The Strong, Silent Type." More cuttingly, in "Cold Cuts," Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) describes depression as "rage turned inward." Her summation rings true of Tony and Gandolfini.

The whole man

Despite the challenges, everyone who worked with James Gandolfini has glowing praise for the man. During a 2015 appearance on "The Meredith Vieira Show," Bracco described her late colleague as "sweet, loving, he was a good guy ... if he liked you he would give you that bear hug and not let you go ... he was always a pal." Much of the cast has similarly kind words (via Variety).

In "Tinderbox," Terence Winter stressed: "James Gandolfini was not Tony Soprano. James was a kind and funny person but Tony got into his head and lived there for nine months. That was exhausting in a lot of different ways."

Even people who were less familiar with the man have only positive anecdotes to share. Matt Zoller Seitz, who had reviewed the series weekly for New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger, wrote a eulogy titled "Seitz on James Gandolfini, 1961-2013: A Great Actor, A Better Man." Seitz recounts everything from Gandolfini sending TV critics who raved about "The Sopranos" in its first season Christmas cards to the actor personally sending condolences when Seitz's wife passed.

Even the best and most kindhearted people still have their flaws. Gandolfini clearly had his, but from the words of those who knew him, lack of generosity and modesty were not among them. He channeled his demons into some of the best acting ever captured by a camera. In one of his last performances, Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly," he plays a character quite similar to Tony and excels without missing a beat. Every Gandolfini performance was something special. It's a shame we won't be getting any more of them.