'Sopranos' Actor James Gandolfini Dies At Age 51

James Gandolfini, the actor made famous for his signature role as Tony Soprano on HBO's groundbreaking series The Sopranos died on Wednesday. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel speaks with NPR Pop Culture Blogger Linda Holmes about the actor's life.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The actor James Gandolfini has died. He played dozens of parts over decades of his career. But there is one role that he'll be remembered for, a troubled mobster with an anxiety problem: Tony Soprano.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) Even if I knew where my cousin was, and I do not, I would not deliver him up to them. I am offering him the same protection that I would offer any of you in similar circumstances. Now I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, hey, Ton', I would never do what he did. God bless, I hope not. But we are a family, and even in his day and age, that means something.

SIEGEL: Gandolfini died suddenly today while on vacation in Italy. He was 51 years old. And joining us to talk about James Gandolfini is NPR's pop culture blogger Linda Holmes.

Linda, welcome to the program.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tony Soprano and James Gandolfini, why did this actor fit that part so perfectly?

HOLMES: Well, Tony Soprano is a part that called for both a very powerful physicality and a really, really rich and interesting emotional palette. There's a lot of swagger in that character, but also a lot of vulnerability. And I think Gandolfini is great gift with that character with being able to balance all of those elements.

SIEGEL: What made Tony Soprano stand out as a mobster was that he had a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who is played by Lorraine Bracco. And that relationship between the therapist and the gangster was so striking, and it revealed so much about Tony Soprano as a character. Talk about how Gandolfini and Bracco handled that relationship.

HOLMES: Well, the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi was always one of a lot of hesitation on both of their parts. He was very wary of her because she was a psychiatrist. And she was very wary of him because as she got to know him, she got to understand the business he was in. So they did have a certain distance and wariness. But there was also a lot of trust, a lot of intimacy and loyalty. And those actors really built that partnership so that they could play the different pieces of that relationship.

SIEGEL: Now, "The Sopranos" was an HBO dramatic series, and when we speak of HBO dramas, we mean something. They're mature, layered stories with flawed characters, complex relationships. But back in 1999, when "The Sopranos" first came on, HBO didn't necessarily mean that much, didn't have that reputation. How did Gandolfini helped define what an HBO drama was going to become?

HOLMES: Well, the HBO drama and, ultimately, the premium cable drama became very much driven by anti-heroes more than anything else. And that's a trend that has ultimately extended not only to HBO, but also to Showtime, to FX, now to AMC - with shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men." And if those dramas sort of had their genesis with HBO and "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano is really ground zero for that kind of character.

SIEGEL: You know, Linda, I remember seeing the very first episodes of "The Sopranos" and thinking that it was a comedy at first. And as the series progressed, not being sure in that first season whether it was a comedy or a drama or what - I mean, Gandolfini had a gift to somehow be both entertaining and amusing and, at the same time, an engaging complex character.

HOLMES: He absolutely did. And he did other comedy work sometimes. He was later in a comedy called "In the Loop" that's very good. So he did have that mix of drama and humor and lightheartedness at times.

SIEGEL: Okay, Linda. Thank you very much. That's Linda Holmes who writes NPR's pop culture blog MONKEY SEE, talking with us about the late James Gandolfini, the actor who died today suddenly at the age of 51.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways, he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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