Talking to David Chase in late 2012, I couldn’t help myself. I told him that watching James Gandolfini in “Not Fade Away” made me realize (again) how much I missed “The Sopranos.”
Gandolfini played the father in Chase’s valentine to 1960s music starring Point Park grad John Magaro as an aspiring rocker and Gandolfini as his father. Chase had put some of his own father’s words into Gandolfini’s mouth: “You look like you just got off the boat. … You and me are gonna tangle, my friend.”
As you may have heard, Gandolfini, 51, has died. He reportedly suffered a heart attack in Italy, and television and movies will never be the same.
I still remember borrowing the earliest episodes of “The Sopranos” on VHS and watching them three or four at a time – I’d stay up late and watch them in the mornings before work -- and then ordering HBO just for that show.
Although “The Sopranos” was his signature role, he once came to Pittsburgh for a movie and regularly popped up on the big screen.
In “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” starring Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, Gandolfini played a casino mogul whose patience wears thing as his magicians’ act does.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” he was Leon Panetta while he starred alongside Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta in “Killing Them Softly.”
“Welcome to the Rileys” paired him with Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo. The “Twilight” star played a Florida runaway, working as a stripper in New Orleans, and Gandolfini and Leo were an Indianapolis couple who had lost their 15-year-old daughter in an accident and were in need of someone to parent.
“Where the Wild Things Are” featured his voice as the voice of a creature named Carol, who clings to a makeshift family and has scary flashes of destructive anger.
He had a small but nifty turn as the mayor in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” and was a duplicitous political operative named Tiny Duffy in “All the King’s Men” starring Sean Penn.
Here’s a video column I wrote in 2000 with more suggestions:
Who knew? Back in early ' 93, when a movie called "Money for Nothing" was being shot in Pittsburgh, everyone scrambled to meet John Cusack. But the actor who played his brother has become the toast of (pay) television.
Yes, James Gandolfini from "The Sopranos" was Philadelphian Billy Coyle, whose brother Joey found $ 1.2 million that tumbled out of an armored truck bound for Atlantic City. Joey, an unemployed longshoreman who tried to keep the money, became a South Philly folk hero.
Gandolfini, 38, has almost two dozen movies to his credit, some worth watching or rewatching (such as "Get Shorty") and some not ("8MM"). He often plays a working stiff, wiseguy or cop. In "Night Falls on Manhattan," he's a plainclothes detective and Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior on the HBO series) is a judge.
If you're a fan of Gandolfini and want to trace his movie career, some rental suggestions:
"Mr. Wonderful," 1993 -
Gandolfini has a small role in this romance, directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Dillon as a New York Con Edison worker trying to marry off his ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra). He wants to find her a Mr. Wonderful so he can escape alimony payments.
He sets her up with a co-worker named Mike (Gandolfini), who's not exactly a ladies man. "Whenever I talk to women, I just feel like I've got a hump on my back or something. I got a lot to give, you know." He's a sweet bachelor who makes a mean meatloaf, clutches his blue hardhat on his date and broaches the subject of marriage - he'd have to talk things over with his parents within minutes of meeting Sciorra.
"Money for Nothing," 1993 - Gandolfini is Billy Coyle, a burly boss at the Philadelphia docks who won't hire his own brother for a day, although he will give him his sack lunch. When Billy hears someone is playing finder's keepers with $ 1.2 million, he declares: "You don't take something if it's not yours. You just don't. A lotta people got money problems, they don't steal."
Although angry at what Joey has done, he helps him slip out of a bar. He gives him a hug and kiss and says, "Go, I'll take care of this. Be smart, Joey." Smart, Joey ain't. Gandolfini, by the way, isn't the only guy who was destined for stardom. Look for Philip Seymour Hoffman, now knocking them dead in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Magnolia," as a drinking buddy of Joey's.
"Crimson Tide," 1995 -
When the subject of bombing Japan comes up at the officers' mess table, Lt. Bobby Dougherty (Gandolfini) asks, "What are you, a Communist? You have a problem with us dropping nuclear bombs on Japan?" So it's no surprise that when two officers (Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman) wrestle for control of their nuclear submarine, Dougherty sides with the older man. "Gimme an order, sir," he says, later training a gun on Washington.
Before everything turns into a life-and-death struggle, Dougherty demonstrates his knowledge of submarine movies, ordering a newcomer to give him 20 push-ups when he can't identify the actor who played the German commander in "The Enemy Below."
"Get Shorty," 1995 -
This is how Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), fastidious limo-service owner, movie investor and all-around threat, introduces Gandolfini: "I'd like you to meet my associate, Bear. Movie stuntman. Champion weight lifter, as you might have noticed. Throws things out I don't want."
Bear is a bull of a man with beard, long ponytail, taste for Hawaiian shirts and a little daughter named Farrah, on whom he dotes. He meets his match in Miami loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta), who answers the above introduction by throwing Bear down a set of restaurant stairs. Bear gets in his licks - and the last laugh on Bo - later.
"The Juror," 1996 -
Tony Soprano is foreshadowed in Gandolfini's role of Eddie, who tries to muscle a juror (Demi Moore) for the mob and yet lends a sympathetic ear. She's a single mother and sculptor who embraces jury duty, only to find herself being threatened unless she votes not guilty in a murder trial - and convinces her fellow jurors to do likewise.
Trailing her to the grocery one day, Eddie assures her: "Look, you'll be fine. We're not animals. I got a kid, too, just a little older than him. Teen-ager." But it's the seductive and psychotic Alec Baldwin who's calling the shots, and he is an animal.
"Night Falls on Manhattan," 1997 -
Here, police partners Gandolfini and Ian Holm are in the middle of a bust gone bad. Very bad. The biggest dope dealer in the city escapes in an NYPD car, three cops are killed and Holm seriously injured.
Through a series of improbable twists, Holm's son (Andy Garcia) becomes district attorney and finds himself investigating police corruption. Gandolfini's character meets an untimely end, and Garcia learns nothing is black and white, with justice often dwelling in the gray areas.
"She's So Lovely," 1997 -
It's low-life time here, with Gandolfini living down the hall from a pair of barflies, played by Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn. When the husband disappears for days, Gandolfini plies the wife with whiskey and brutalizes her. When Penn reappears, he pummels Gandolfini who labels him "nuts" and her, "a whore."
"The Mighty," 1998 -
When "Killer Kane" (Gandolfini) suddenly appears in his son's room on Christmas Eve, it's not because he's bearing gifts. A threatening brute who just spent nine years in prison, he appropriates an apartment for the night and ties young Max (Elden Henson) to a radiator. "There's somethin' you need to know about your Daddy. I never killed nobody," he insists, in a Southern accent. It's up to Max's best friend, a sickly boy with a kinship for King Arthur, to save the day.
"A Civil Action," 1998 -
Al Love (Gandolfini), a father of eight, works for polluter W.R. Grace & Co. but lives across the street from a woman (Kathleen Quinlan) who blames her son's fatal leukemia on the contaminated water in their town of Woburn, Mass. When a high-priced lawyer tries to assure Al that the water hasn't sickened anyone, he responds: "There's a lotta people in my neighborhood who are dead or dying - from something. ... I know what happened. I know who did it."
Al's family has more than its share of medical problems and a scene in which he presides over his crowded dinner table, as his wife pours the children glasses of tap water, is a pivotal one. Despite the disapproving stares of co-workers, he assists attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), in his protracted legal battle against the behemoths. Based on a real story, this is a good movie, with strong performances all around.
Also look for: "8MM," "Fallen," "Terminal Velocity," "Angie," "True Romance" and "Stranger Among Us."