TV VIEWERS may well continue to argue for decades about whether Tony Soprano is dead, but it won't feel the same, now that the man who brought him to life is gone.
James Gandolfini, the burly - and surprisingly shy - actor who shot to stardom in HBO's "The Sopranos" as an up-and-coming mobster suffering a midlife crisis, died in Italy yesterday of a possible heart attack, and never wanted to see his character go that way.
Killing the panic-attack-prone Tony off with a heart attack would be "kind of lame," he told reporters in 2006, back when speculation about how the show would end was all the rage.
But then he claimed, jokingly, to prefer the nuclear option: "That would be good. Boom!"
A character actor who was already 37 - and looked even older - when "The Sopranos" premiered in January 1999, Gandolfini never seemed entirely comfortable with the sudden fame the show brought him. I remember him surrounded by reporters after a Television Critics Association awards event early in the show's run. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look. The next time he won a TCA award, I'm pretty sure he sent us all thank-you notes instead.
But I also remember him years later at an HBO press party, the kind of event no amount of arm-twisting could have forced him to attend. The ambiguous ending of "The Sopranos" was still a hot topic, but I don't recall anyone having the nerve to ask him about it. Not when he was accompanied by several young, wounded veterans, some of them amputees, who'd participated in a documentary he'd produced for HBO, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq.
Gandolfini was willing to put himself out there to make sure we talked to them. In the film itself, while he was the interviewer, he seemed to be trying to be seen and heard as little as humanly possible.
"I went to Iraq [the first time] because I was playing this tough guy on TV, and I guess I wanted to go meet a few real ones or something like that," he said during a news conference to promote the project. "I was angry about the lack of attention that was being paid. I wanted to do something."
Gandolfini followed that up with another doc for HBO, "Wartorn: 1861-2010," which looked at the psychically shattered veterans of America's wars and at the phenomenon once known as "hysteria" and more recently labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.
"He was a genius," "Sopranos" creator David Chase said in a statement yesterday. "A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."
Certainly, he brought a sadness, and a humanity, to Tony, a man in the process of becoming a monster, that struck a chord with millions.
In summer 2006, before the sixth season premiered, he told reporters: "It's a dark, dark world, and you're in it a lot. However, if you're going to be in a dark world . . . I can't think of a better one to be in."
Gandolfini was preparing to return to HBO in a new, seven-episode limited series called "Criminal Justice," in which he was to play an unsuccessful lawyer. His death leaves that project in limbo, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
It's unlikely, in seven episodes or 70, that Gandolfini could ever have surpassed his work on "The Sopranos," whose first season alone is among the very best television ever made.
It would have been wonderful, though, to see him try.
On Twitter: @elgray