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James Gandolfini dies: He wanted to honor working-class people

June 20, 2013|By Greg Braxton

James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of mobster Tony Soprano in HBO's "The Sopranos" transformed him into one of Hollywood's most prized and respected actors, had little interest in playing white-collar guys with ties.

Gandolfini, 51, who died Wednesday in Italy of a heart attack or stroke, was more drawn to blue-collar folks like his working-class parents. Much of his career was about honoring them.

“My parents worked hard, were honest, were good people,” he said during a 2004 installment of Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio."

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Said the actor: “I’m standing on their shoulders because they worked so hard and enabled me to go to college. These are the kinds of people that I love and these are the kinds of people I want to show in movies because I think they’re getting screwed. If I have any power as an actor, I think that’s where it comes from."

He talked during that interview of being greatly influenced in his younger years by movies starring Robert DeNiro, particularly “Mean Streets.” “I saw that 10 times in a row…. I just sat there. I thought everything about it was great.”

But surprisingly, he also found films involving Robert Redford to be of great influence. “I was really affected by ‘Jeremiah Johnson,'” he said of the 1972 film that starred Redford as a mountain man who wanted to live the life of a hermit.

After graduating from Rutgers University, Gandolfini said he managed a New York nightclub, “Private Eyes,” which was gay two nights of the week, straight two nights and mixed on the remaining nights. He said he spent a few years just watching the people and interactions at the club and the types of behavior he saw would inform him greatly when he began to pursue his acting career.

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He made his Broadway debut in 1992 in the role of Steve alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But it was his first major film role in 1993’s offbeat crime caper “True Romance,” written by Quentin Tarantino, and directed by Tony Scott that viewers really started to notice Gandolfini. He played a smiling hitman named Virgil, and perhaps the film’s most memorable scene was set in a motel room when he viciously beats a prostitute named Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette. The scene took five days to film, he said.

“True Romance” was the first instance of what would be a continuing theme in Gandolfini’s career — scenes in which he was violent against women. He had another such scene in the John Travolta film, “She’s So Lovely” with Robin Wright Penn.

When asked about those scenes during his “Actors Studio” appearance, Gandolfini became subdued and very uncomfortable. “I find they’re difficult — they take a bit of a toll,” he said quietly. “You go home feeling absolutely rotten. It takes a while … for me.”

When Gandolfini first read the script for “The Sopranos,” he was excited. He also thought there was no way he would ever get the part.

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“I couldn’t stop laughing out loud, and thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to do this,’" he said, “I really thought they would find someone different than I … suave, good-looking, mafioso-type guy, someone a little more leading man.

The actor said, “He was so unhappy with his initial audition that he pleaded with producers to let him come back and try again.

Asked how he interpreted the character of Tony Soprano, he said, “It says a lot about a lot of people. He’s a man in struggle. He doesn’t have a religion, he doesn’t believe in the government, he doesn’t believe in anything except his code of honor, and his code of honor is all going to .... So he’s got nothing left… it’s that searching around that I think a lot of Americans have half the time. You could buy things, but he had no center left. And I really identified with that.

"Plus," he added, "You got to be funny on top of it.”


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