Mobsters have been a staple of Hollywood forever but James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano turned upside down the pop culture idea of what it meant to be a gangster.
Sure, Tony Soprano was a tough guy, as brutal and efficient a killer as you would want in a mob boss - but he was also a complicated and conflicted man. He suffered so many anxiety attacks that he had regular sessions with a psychiatrist. Those sessions - both combative and confessional - were often the highlights of the landmark HBO series.
Tony Soprano was also a family man, a family man who constantly cheated on his wife but who worried about his teenage kids like we all do.
And he was also a "businessman" who constantly had to worry about the bottom line, about rival "businessmen," and oh yeah, one more thing, criminal prosecution.
Gandolfini perfectly embodied Tony Soprano. He wasn't the "slick leading man" type gangster. There was nothing glamorous about him. He was a character actor who created perhaps the most iconic TV "character" ever. He was an "everyman" mob boss.
He once described himself as a 260 pound Woody Allen. And his "Tony Soprano" was a neurotic tough guy, Woody Allen with a commanding presence. Yes, a walking contradiction.
That he never found a role to rival the importance or popularity of Tony Soprano is no knock against Gandolfini. He was a great character actor who returned to those traditionally smaller character roles after "The Sopranos" faded to black. He was brilliant as a no-BS general who cursed up a storm in the great political comedy film, "In the Loop" a couple of years ago and he got a Tony nomination for the ensemble drama "God of Carnage" on Broadway.
He died much too young, it's true, but no matter how much longer he had lived, it's doubtful he would have ever eclipsed what he accomplished in "The Sopranos." In terms of pop culture, James Gandolfini had already made his mark for all time, thanks to Tony Soprano.