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Did James Gandolfini Die for His Craft?

Or more accurately, for a distorted view of what the craft requires? Yes, Gandolfini niched himself as a character actor, one who happened to be overweight, and therefore “typed” as such. But he once confirmed to James Lipton on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” that he believed Tony Soprano’s weight was pivotal to his portrayal. So he stayed that way for the course of “The Sopranos” and beyond. Just last week, obesity was labeled a disease by the American Medical Association. So my question is, did Gandolfini stay static for his art, industry expectations, and his audience, and ultimately succumb to this newly diagnosed disease?

I remember years ago, Robert DeNiro’s weight gain in “Raging Bull” signaled just how far an actor could go to commit to a role, and seemed to set the bar for the lengths actors can go to, to be in character. In recent years, other actors have also played this weight game: Renee Zellweger and Charlize Theron, for example, gained weight “conservatively” for roles and then got right back to size. For those that went in the opposite direction, losing weight, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tom Hanks come to mind. It has become an Oscar-worthy badge of honor to change one’s form.

But with Gandolfini, he stayed heavy. Maybe it wasn’t just for Tony Soprano; maybe it was simply part of the heritage and habits of being Italian-American. I do recall seeing him in films when he was thinner, and there did seem to be less gravitas. I think what may have been a lethal combination along with the weight was his volatility and propensity to rage that he carried within too. He didn’t just play that on screen. By industry accounts, he lived it. Any cardiologist will say that in terms of chronic symptomology, that having this mix is extremely dangerous for the heart, exacerbated by any smoking, drug, or alcohol use. His demons, whatever they were, seemed grounded by the larger form. Maybe his raw feelings felt less on the surface that way. There seemed to be more presence when there was more of him. He alluded to that too, in his interview on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”

But at what cost? Yes, actors can feel the pressure to portray extremes in film; apparently, such was the case of Dustin Hoffman when prepping for “Marathon Man.” The now well-known tale is that Hoffman reportedly stayed up for three nights to look extremely tired, with Lawrence Olivier advising him to instead “try acting, dear boy.” Like Olivier, I wish I could say to Gandolfini’s younger self: Please respect your instrument! Wear a prosthesis! Act! Would it be less “real” not to have the actual heft? Less “method?” Maybe. But it may have led to a longer life, one could reasonably assume. All things considered, would he have had the same lifestyle behaviors if he was a landscape architect? A person that worked quietly in communications behind the scenes? I don’t know.

I remember my method acting training at Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute years ago. My teacher at the time said that when tapping into a difficult emotion memory to use for a scene, it was recommended that seven years had passed so it would be resolved (which of course, can’t always be the case) to not trigger anything upsetting or create a negative repercussion. But any actor will tell you we use whatever the muse gives us to use, and he used his rage. It was palpable, no holds barred. Yet this was clearly not cathartic for him.

If all this was brought into play to great affect for his character in “The Sopranos” and beyond, did the line get so blurred that his fate was sealed? Did he have our permission to stay out of control? Did we applaud him for it?

From my own experience, giving oneself over to the requirements of a role, be it a cancer victim, drug addict, or paranoid-schizophrenic, does stay with you if you don’t take your focus off it at the end of the day. Add to that a fragile mental state or a melancholy tendency, and well, it can simply be tough experiencially to get out of it, to handle well over the course of a project. In his case, his most well-known role spanned years. Were his character “defects” exploited and lauded in his art?

What I’m getting to is this: There may have been a component of commitment to his craft that made him decide to carry that weight as a trademark. A potentially deadly trademark. If the weight was a gift to play Tony Soprano, maybe it didn’t matter to him that he was sacrificing himself in the process. Making himself a target for his own “hit.” How very in keeping with the show. Maybe it did become a badge of honor. A more compelling image for us to consume. And he simply maintained that lifestyle once the show ended. By that time, habits congealed, and the weight became an intrinsic part of him, for all parts to come.

I think perhaps an aspect of his brilliance was that extra something that was on display through his actual - dare I say it - dysfunction, as with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Heath Ledger – those vulnerable souls we couldn’t take our eyes off of. There was something extra about them that made us look. In my opinion, that’s not necessary, in order to do good work. Meryl Streep looks like she’s steering the vessel, not going down with it. I think with the right help, Gandolfini could have transformed into such a more fit actor – in all aspects of the word “fit” – had he had the wherewithal or guidance to do that. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I didn’t need to see him overweight to enjoy his work.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, acting talent – or a great acting gift – may in part be borne out of dysfunction, the way comic genius can be borne out of pain. I think he had so much more to show us, and I, like everyone I know, mourn the loss. It just makes me want to storm into a room and rant Soprano-style: You were a contender man, not could have been. You were. Why didn’t you honor your talent and protect it in ways that had nothing to do with your waist size? You had such an abundant gift.

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