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James Gandolfini created an enduring legacy

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:26 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
This March 9, 2003 file photo shows US actor James Gandolfini accepting the award for Outstanding Male Actor in a Drama Series for his role in 'The Sopranos' at the 9th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, CA. Emmy award-winning US actor James Gandolfini, the star of the long-running mafia drama 'The Sopranos,' has died at the age of 51 in Italy, media reports said June 19, 2013.

This week's news on the sudden death of James Gandolfini came as a shock to his fans.

Gandolfini, 51, died Wednesday while vacationing in Rome. The star of “The Sopranos,” for which he won three Emmy Awards, and an actor in a wide range of stage and movie roles, will be best remembered for his portrayal of Tony Soprano.

In New Jersey, where Gandolfini was born and raised through college — he attended Rutgers University — his character has become an indelible part of the state's global image and culture. There, a bag of uncooked ziti in the driveway, a “reserved” sign at the ice-cream parlor booth where the series abruptly ended and a framed photo at a strip club were among the tributes paid to Gandolfini.

Pittsburgh fans are touched, as well.

Upon hearing the news, Kathy Emro walked into her boss' office and asked for a few bereavement days.

“Tony Soprano had died, and my entire office knows I loved Tony Soprano,” says Emro, 50, of Lincoln Place, who works for a health-benefits company in Carnegie. “He felt like a member of my family. I am a huge fan, and I loved the entire Italian lifestyle. I am Irish, and we don't have anything like the Italian lifestyle. There is no tradition like the Italian tradition.”

Her fan devotion included a bucket-list item to visit The Bada Bing Club, a strip club featured on the show that is, in reality, a club called Satin Dolls.

But Gandolfini was known for more than a single character on one television series, says Fred Bucci, 50, of Greenfield.

“He had so many other roles,” says Bucci, who still watches episodes On Demand. “He was in a ton of movies. I think most people know him because of ‘The Sopranos' and because of his accent for that character, but he was more than that.”

Bucci says Gandolfini was amazing in his role in “The Last Castle.” But his popularity grew with “The Sopranos” because he was on regularly.

“Seeing the show on a weekly basis allows fans to get to know the character, so when something like this happens, they feel bad,” Bucci says. “You develop an attachment to him. And now, just wait, you will hear people quoting him all over the place.”

A Facebook post is how Karen Sparks-Chance of West Mifflin heard the news. She watched “The Sopranos” religiously.

“It is so sad,” says Sparks-Chance, who recently turned 50. “He was so young. I feel like I knew him. I thought he was cool. He was perfect for that role. They couldn't have found anyone better. I really thought there might be a Sopranos movie. But you can ‘fuggeddaboudit.'”

Gandolfini was one of the best character actors, says Rachael Vermillion, 42, from the South Side.

“He was underrated. He was fantastic in lots of roles, including ‘The Mexican,'” she says.

“When you watch a show like ‘The Sopranos,' you get involved in the character,” Vermillion says. “And the character was so personable. He had problems like the rest of us. And even though he was a murderous person, people fell in love with him. He was good and bad, and there is some sex appeal to that. They could not have picked someone better for that role.”

Many of his fans agree that Gandolfini's biggest skill was humanizing a role that really was too mean to deserve such treatment.

“His secret to playing Tony Soprano was that he gave the character real substance,” says Aspinwall recording engineer George Heid, remembering getting together with friends to watch the show.

“He was the real deal,” he says. “He has such great energy, and because he came from New Jersey, he gave the character real roots.”

Bill Purse, the chairman of guitar and music technology at Duquesne University, says Gandolfini was able to take a nasty role and make it believable — even a bit sympathetic — because of how he gave that role life.

Christine B. Whelan, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, says that humanity created an odd reality.

“You found yourself cheering him on as he dealt with issues,” she says. “But that was tough because, from a feminist's viewpoint, he was a womanizing pig.”

Gandolfini's small roles in early films that included “Get Shorty” (1995) and “True Romance” (1993) first put the actor on the radar for Patrick Jordan, an actor and artistic director of Barebones Productions.

“He had a naturalism that made you believe he was not just some bull thug, but vulnerable,” Jordan says. “He was proof that a character actor can also be a leading man.

“He was definitely my kind of actor,” Jordan says. “I would have hired him without ‘The Sopranos.'”

Bill Johns of Upper St. Clair became a fan of “The Sopranos,” even though he is not a regular TV watcher.

“He was superb in that character,” Johns says. “He was the way you would visualize a mob boss from New Jersey, but still he had his family values. They would take priority over his mob activities. I thought he was terrific.”

Ken McCabe says he would have congratulated Gandolfini had he had the opportunity to meet him.

“I would have told him he did a really good job both as a mafia don and portraying the trials and tribulations of a father in that world,” says the former agent in charge of the FBI Pittsburgh Division, which included Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “It was pretty accurate how the father tried to keep the business away from the family.”

McCabe was assigned to the organized crime section at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he taught the subject at the FBI Academy. After retiring from the bureau, he was based in Pittsburgh as one of the original commissioners of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, and worked to keep organized crime out of the casinos. Now living in Florida, he is CEO of South Gaming Resorts out of Arkansas.

He watched “The Sopranos” religiously. He was not alone.

“We had a wire tap on some of the mafia guys in the New York area, and any time after ‘The Sopranos' aired, you would hear them say, ‘Did you watch the show last night? Geez, they are just like us,' or they would say, ‘I wish I could be like that.'

“They talked about watching ‘The Sopranos' and how realistic and good it was. These were the real guys and they loved watching the show. We laughed about that. They spoke highly of how well James Gandolfini portrayed his role. Even the real mafia guys looked up to him and wanted to emulate him and thought he was a good guy.”

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