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James Gandolfini, gone too soon

‘The Sopranos” changed television forever, alerting everyone with eyes to what the medium, so often thought of as the movies' cheeseball little brother, could do. But if David Chase was the mastermind, James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack tonight at 51, was the executor, the guy who took the challenging idea of making a show about a morally corrupt character, and made it seem like common sense. Since his performance, creating a show around a character sort of like Tony Soprano has been the ambition of nearly every person trying to make serious television.

There have been great performances on TV since Gandolfini’s mafioso king Tony, but none have been as powerful or as original: it's a performance so good it’s almost impossible to exaggerate its greatness. Gandolfini created from scratch an entire, now bedrock-seeming archetype, the character who, through the skill of his portrayer, is simultaneously charismatic and menacing, threatening and charming, winning and terrifying. His Tony was scary and pained, hulking and sometimes shockingly lithe, so brutal but so funny. Playing him, Gandolfini masterfully manipulated audiences' sympathy, held their attention, and kept their interest, sometimes against their better judgment and even, towards the end of the series, against their will. He was like a pick-pocket so good you ended up just handing him your wallet, abdicating before his insane skill.

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