The Longform Guide to The Sopranos

An oral history, the night James Gandolfini disappeared, and a definitive guide to that last scene.

James Gandolfini died this week at age 51.

James Gandolfini died this week at age 51.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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Garden State Warrior: 11 Moments with James Gandolfini
Chris Heath • GQ • December 2004

Every story ever written about the late Gandolfini was really just a story about The Sopranos. Except this one.

“He pulls up on his Harley. I watch as he awkwardly backs the small bike to the curb outside the Ear Inn and lifts off his helmet. James Gandolfini arrived back in New York City at seven thirty this evening after his Emmy weekend in Los Angeles; he put his 5-year-old son to bed, then headed out, only slightly late for his interview. He does very few of these. He has not always had an easy time with the public side of the fame The Sopranos has brought him—all those nosy questions, those pesky paparazzi, the peculiar moments when a person will come up to you as you are vomiting at the curbside outside a Tennessee airport to ask whether you’d mind his taking a picture. But nor does he have much patience with the sound of someone like him complaining about such things. In the past, when he has spoken, he has sometimes replied to questions by protesting that he is boring. Maybe he believes that this is the case, or just believes there is no point in allowing himself to seem interesting in the way interviewers usually want people to be. Still, he has told himself that tonight he will be truthful. He’s feeling calmer these days. He has not had one of these conversations for a while, and he intends it to be a long time before he has another.”

The Family Hour
Sam Kashner • Vanity Fair • April 2012

An oral history.

JAMES GANDOLFINI (Tony Soprano): I dabbled a little bit in acting in high school, and then I forgot about it completely. And then at about 25 I went to a class. I don’t think anybody in my family thought it was an intelligent choice. I don’t think anybody thought I’d succeed, which is understandable. I think they were just happy that I was doing something.

DAVID CHASE: In the movie version of The Sopranos, I thought about Robert De Niro. For TV, it was audition after audition—a lot of people went up for that role. As a matter of fact, they don’t like you to bring in one person—they want to have some input. So three people were brought to HBO for the role of Tony, and Jim was one of them. And when Jim Gandolfini walked in, that was it.

JAMES GANDOLFINI: I read it. I liked it. I thought it was good. But I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that. But they called me and they said can I meet David for breakfast at nine A.M. At the time I was younger and I stayed out late a lot, and I was like, Oh, for fuck’s sake. This guy wants to eat breakfast? This guy’s going to be a pain in the ass. So we met and we spent most of the time laughing about our mothers and our families.”

The Long Con
Emily Nussbaum • New York • January 2007

Why The Sopranos worked.

“Now that it’s over, no longer a work-in-progress, we are finally free to criticize it for real or praise it as a whole, and despite some missteps (a gambling problem, really? And what was that Furio-Carmela thing back in Season 4?), I do think the show will reward rewatching. It was, in fact, truly revolutionary, but not because it was adult or novelistic. The Sopranos was the first series that truly dared us to slam the door, to reject it. And when we never did, it slammed the door on us: A silent black screen, a fitting conclusion to a show that was itself a bit of a long con, that seduced us as an audience, then dismantled its own charms before our eyes.”

Is This the End of Rico?
David Remnick • The New Yorker • April 2001

The Sopranos and the fading mob genre.

“Does “The Sopranos,” with all its postmodern self-awareness, with all its evidence of decline, signal the end of the Mafia movie? Will the Mob movie go the way of the Western, revived rarely and only then as something nostalgic (“Unforgiven”), sensational (“The Wild Bunch”), or comic (“Blazing Saddles”)? It is remarkable to think now how such a rich movie genre came out of such a small, violent, and hermetic world. There were a few silent Mob pictures of distinction—D. W. Griffith’s 1912 short “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” Raoul Walsh’s “The Regeneration” (1915), and Josef von Sternberg’s “Underworld” (1927)—but the first golden age was ushered in by two events: the advent of sound, in 1927, which gave us the jolt of gunfire and the bite of the gangsters’ slang and wit, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in 1929, which made Al Capone a national media figure. Three films released between 1931 and 1932—Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar,” William Wellman’s “Public Enemy,” and Howard Hawks’s “Scarface”—set the standard. Both David Chase and Tony Soprano adore them and the theme they established. As Robert Warshow pointed out in his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” the appeal of these pictures, beyond their visceral excitement and their opportunity for escapism, resides in “that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself,” the comfort and conformity, the sunny optimism and unbounded opportunity. The gangster in these movies is a man whose response to harsh circumstance is brutal and ultimately doomed. He is possessed of perverse ambition and perverse nobility. With our ids, we enjoy his murderous ascent, we delight in his malapropisms and limitless appetites, and with our superegos we are satisfied by his inevitable fall, we feel a sense of superiority and relief.”

The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared
Brett Martin • GQ • June 2013

Playing Tony Soprano wasn’t easy. And one night 2002, Gandolfini decided he’d had enough.

“By the winter of 2002, Gandolfini’s sudden refusals to work had become a semiregular occurrence. His fits were passive-aggressive: He would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his TriBeCa apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused—akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime—that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. ‘All of a sudden there’d be a sushi chef at lunch,’ one crew member remembered. ‘Or we’d all get massages.’ It had come to be understood by all involved as part of the price of doing business, the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolfini offered.

“So when the actor failed to show up for a 6 p.m. call at Westchester County Airport to shoot the final appearance of the character Furio Giunta, a night shoot involving a helicopter, few panicked. ‘Nobody was particularly sad to go home at nine thirty on a Friday night,’ says Terence Winter, the writer-producer on set that evening. ‘You know, “It’s just money.” I mean, it was a ton of money—we shut down a fucking airport.’

“Over the next twelve hours, it would become clear that this time was different. This time, Gandolfini was just gone.”

The Definitive Explanation of “The END”
Master of Sopranos
• June 2008

A beyond-thorough examination of The Sopranos’ final scene. Not for beginners.

“‘If you look at the final episode really carefully, it’s all there.’ These are David Chase’s words regarding the finale of the Sopranos. He is right, it is ‘all there.’ This is the definitive explanation of why Tony died in Holsten’s in the final scene of The Sopranos. The following is based on a thorough analysis of the final season of the show and will clear up one of the most misunderstood endings in film or television history. Chase took almost 2 years to construct the final season of the show after the fifth season ended in June of 2004. Part 1 will show how Chase directed, edited and scored the final scene of the Sopranos to lead to the interpretation that Tony was shot in the head in Holsten’s and how this ties into the ‘never hear it happen’ concept that Chase hammered into the viewer before the show’s final scene.”

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