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How Tony Soprano Changed The Face of Television
Before James Gandolfini, many Hollywood actors saw TV acting as lesser.
by Ryan Fan
In a January 2019 interview on the Dan Patrick Show, Bryan Cranston said that he doesn’t think Breaking Bad would have been made without The Sopranos.
“I think what David Chase was able to do in creating a character like Tony Soprano created the space for someone like Walter White to exist.” Cranston said.
Cranston says that what people root for is humanity, despite the fact that both protagonists and one-man leads in their respective shows, Tony Soprano and Walter White, do terrible things. They’re responsible for the deaths of a lot of people. But the audience still roots for these characters because they’re humanized, and because despite the suffering they inflict on others, they suffer themselves.
Tony Soprano has panic attacks and depression, like a lot of ordinary people. Walter White has terminal lung cancer, like a lot of ordinary people.
Vince Gilligan also acknowledges that he was inspired to make Walter White after meeting James Gandolfini, the late actor that played Soprano. Gilligan says that he once met James Gandolfini, he saw a disconnect between “the scary mob boss I had seen on TV and the warm and friendly man who played him.” He acknowledges that it was also good acting, but being struck by Gandolfini’s kindness made him also want to create an equally complex character:
“He shook my hand by cupping it in both of his, which I’ll also always remember. I felt so honored.”
But I also see striking similarities between Walter White and Tony Soprano in other ways. Both men act at least under the pretense of loving their families. They try to excuse horrible deeds of blackmail, manipulation, and murder throughout both shows with the excuse that “I did it for my family.” They both have significant screentime in the shows, which revolve around them as one-man leads. Tony Soprano came long before Walter White, so obviously Walter White couldn’t inspire Tony Soprano, but like Don Draper of Mad Men, Walter White and Tony Soprano bucked the traditionally stereotyped heroic protagonist. They occupy the space of the anti-hero, who sometimes we empathize with, and sometimes we disdain in horror of their cruelty.
The reason why Tony Soprano inspired Walter White isn’t too dissimilar from how Tony Soprano changed all of television. Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker documents how he did it — but it started with James Gandolfini taking a TV role at a time when starring in TV was seen as “lesser” than being a Hollywood star. Many Hollywood stars simply refused to be TV actors:
“There were beloved TV stars, of course, but they were performers, not actors, lacking gravitas. It was a littler screen and a littler art,” Nussbaum says.
While The Sopranos was a hit and David Chase, the writer of The Sopranos, received most of the credit for making a show that drew the attention of the media, Nussbaum stressed that it wouldn’t have been possible without James Gandolfini himself being cast as Tony Soprano. Gandolfini, then, was a relatively unknown movie actor who transitioned to television to become a legend.
At first, Tony Soprano was a sex symbol in the media. However, as the show went on, Nussbaum says he became “a golem before our eyes.” I don’t know what the audiences see in Tony Soprano’s sexual charm, but he is a terrific and compelling character, a mafia boss whose work as a mob boss required tremendous cruelty, while at home, towards his family, Tony Soprano had to show tremendous kindness. We always have mixed feelings about Tony Soprano, which led Nussbaum to express tremendous respect for Gandolfini’s acting ability.
Gandolfini’s transition from an unknown film actor to one of the best TV actors of all time changed the acting world’s perception of TV.
“It’s rare for one performance to change the world, but once Gandolfini cleared the way, nobody could be under any illusion about what a television actor was capable of,” Nussbaum says.
Gandolfini originally didn’t think he would get the role of Tony Soprano. He became convinced they would cast “some good-looking guy” and “some Italian George Clooney.” At the time, he didn’t have the best credentials, and Gandolfini was 37 — which is old for acting standards and, in the words of David Remnick of The New Yorker, overweight.
In 2013, Gandolfini died in Italy of a heart attack. Throughout the seasons of The Sopranos, he gained weight “at an alarming pace,” in a way that didn’t make his death exactly surprising, but still made it tragic:
“In the dozens of hours he had on the screen, he made Tony Soprano — lovable, repulsive, cunning, ignorant, brutal — more ruthlessly alive than any character we’ve ever encountered in television,” Remmick said.
Cranston said that Tony Soprano was looking for some sense of wholeness as a human being, a regular person dealing with something everyone was dealing with. The main difference between Tony Soprano and Walter White was that Walter White didn’t go into therapy — Cranston attributed that fact to the clock ticking on Walter White having cancer. Tony Soprano also had less of a transformation than Walter White — Walter White goes from the average Joe science teacher to full-on drug kingpin in the five seasons of Breaking Bad, while Tony Soprano is the ordinary person by day, mob boss at night character throughout the whole show.
But yet the two had more similarities than they had differences. Tony Soprano and Walter White both mentor younger people in their respective criminal worlds, and are tough, even abusive to those people. Tony Soprano mentored Christopher Moltisanti and forces Christopher to make decisions that lead him down the path of drug addiction, as does Walter White mentor Jesse Pinkman in the same way. While serving others, both men actually serve themselves, and act as horrible role models who see the people they work with as disposable. The link is more explicit in the character of Walter White, throughout his transformation, than Tony Soprano.
In a more systemic way, the entire show changed TV forever. According to Kat Somners at BBC America, The Sopranos transformed TV by making quality cable shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones focus on premium dramas. The Sopranos also inspired giving those dramas premium budgets. It started a genre of standalone episodes, of self-contained episodes in only one location. For fans of The Sopranos, this episode is “Pine Barrens,” where Christopher and Paulie are trapped in the woods in south New Jersey and stranded.
“The Sopranos single-handedly raised the profile of television as a medium capable of dramatic ambiguity and emotional depth. With over 100 hours of television to play with, the writers could delve into every character, however brief or inconsequential to the plot, and produce a living, breathing thing,” Somners said.
Without question, Tony Soprano inspired so many television programs and changed the face of TV forever.