When we talk about the evolution of scripted television these days, we (understandably) tend to talk in terms of showrunners and the decisions they make. But actors matter a great deal too, and it's hard to think of any actor who did more to redefine what television could be than James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series The Sopranos is one of the greatest and most influential roles in the history of television.
A character actor who appeared in, among other things, a series of early 1990s Tony Scott films, including The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, and Crimson Tide, Gandolfini landed the the lead role in The Sopranos, which first aired in 1999. The show quickly became a TV milestone; many critics argued, compellingly, that it was the best show of all time.
Certainly it was among the most influentual, with its creators and core ideas still reverberating through so many of the high-quality dramas produced today. And that influence, and its continued power, has a lot to do with the way Gandolfini payed Tony: powerful but conflcted, angry and often menacingly violent but not wholly heartless, driven and determined yet fundamentally confused about what he wanted out of life. Was he a monster? Or just the man next door? Gandolfini's performance helped provide the only possible answer to that pair of questions: Yes. It was the perfect role, and he was the perfect actor for it. It's impossible to imagine The Sopranos without Gandolfini, and nearly as difficult to imagine the modern TV drama landscape — with its emphasis on brooding, sprawling serials led by aging male antiheroes — without his work on the show. Gandolfini died today while on vacation in Italy. He'll be missed.