In his upcoming book Difficult Men, author Brett Martin relates an episode from 2002 when James Gandolfini vanished from the set of The Sopranos in the middle of filming the show’s third season. At first, after the actor missed a 6 a.m. call, producers simply worked around his absence, shooting other scenes. Gandolfini was famous for his eccentricities. But after a few days without word, people got nervous.
Driving into work one morning, Terence Winter, the Sopranos writer who would go on to create Boardwalk Empire, heard the start of a radio report about “sad news from Hollywood” and thought “Holy —-! He’s dead.” He wasn’t, of course. Gandolfini wandered back to the set a few days later and slipped back into the bathrobe of mob boss Tony Soprano, reassuming his spot at the center of a burgeoning TV revolution — the “Third Golden Age,” as Martin calls it in his expertly reported account of the era.
Wednesday night, though, the sad news out of Hollywood was about Gandolfini, who died of an apparent heart attack while on vacation with his family in Rome. He was 51. The anecdote about his disappearance speaks both to his inscrutability — no one was all that surprised that no one knew where he was — and his lifestyle, as an untimely death wasn’t out of the realm of possibility to those close to him. It also illuminates how intertwined his public persona became with his most famous creation, for that portrait would certainly also suit the hulking, complicated Tony Soprano to a tee.
As a book title, Difficult Men is both a description of the type of people who created the shows that redefined television at the turn of the century, and the types of anti-heroes around whom they built those shows. David Chase wrote Tony Soprano into existence. David Simon gave us Jimmy McNulty and Omar Little from The Wire. Matthew Weiner dreamed up Mad Men’s Don Draper. You get the idea.
In this realm, Gandolfini will always stand as a giant, the most important actor who played the most important character on the most important TV show of its time. He was more versatile than you may remember — in small roles in movies like True Romance, Get Shorty, A Civil Action and Zero Dark Thirty, he never failed to make an impression. He was, by many accounts, a kind, thoughtful man. But to most of us, he’ll always be Tony Soprano.
He departed, too, a lot like Tony did. In the famous final scene of The Sopranos the screen suddenly goes black in the middle of a happy Sopranos family dinner at a local diner. Forget the debate over whether the mob boss lived or died in that blackness: It was the suddenness that really gnawed at us, that robbed us of the closure we’d grown accustomed to from TV finales, and goodbyes. Like that, he was gone.
In Difficult Men, Martin writes about the first time the Sopranos cast did a table read of the script for that finale. At the end, Chase watched Gandolfini for his reaction. “It was the same as it had been at eighty-five previous table readings,” writes the author. “He closed his script. He stared into space for several long moments. And then he pushed his chair back and got up from the table.”
And then, he was gone.
Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad arrives in bookstores on July 3.