More than one genius contributed to The Sopranos on HBO. Conception and production by David Chase, production and writing by Matthew Weiner, and many more. And while the words that an actor says are rarely his or her own - being supplied by the writer - the way that the actor delivers the words makes all the difference. In Gandolfini's case, he brought that mixture of brutal and tender, of lethal mobster and caring family man, that defined Tony Soprano and made the series as revolutionary as it was.
Books have written about why The Sopranos was such a pathbreaking series, some in part by me. I hosted a scholarly conference about The Sopranos at Fordham University in May 2008, organized by David Lavery, Doug Howard, and me. The gist is that prior to The Sopranos, television was unwilling to take a chance on a narrative about a mobster who could kill an adversary one hour and return to his family to worry about how his kids were doing in school the next. We saw that in the movies, in The Godfather trilogy, for sure. But not on television.
And the result changed everything - for cable shows like Dexter on Showtime, for House of Cards on Netflix, and much more. We live now in a new golden age of television, and that age started with The Sopronos, brought to life by the breathtaking acting of James Gandolfini.
The person is no longer with us. But the character he created will live along with Hamlet forever.
See also A Conversation with Dominic Chianese for more on James Gandolfini.