How do you mourn someone you never actually met?
That, of course, is the context of dealing with all celebrity deaths, but it’s particularly true in the case of my relationship with James Gandolfini. A co-worker announced the 51-year-old actor’s passing at a meeting last week, and the whole room gasped, which I found strange. Yes, Tony Soprano is arguably the most iconic television character of the last decade, and yes, the guy was much too young to drop dead of a heart attack. (I assumed he was at least 10 years older.) But it’s not as if he was Michael Jackson or something. The Sopranos ended in 2007, and his last film role was in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s sad to hear of anyone dying so suddenly, particularly when on vacation with his son, but based on the shock that passed through the office in that moment, you’d think the president had been shot.
Why do we react this way when a famous person dies? Don’t we have enough to worry about, what with the mortality of our own friends and family constantly drifting in the winds of fate? It seems to me like an even more curious waste of grief when the victim is an actor. If a musician does the job correctly, fans will feel as if they know him or her on some level: When Joe Strummer died in 2003 — succumbing, like Gandolfini, to a sudden heart attack in his early 50s — I was in a daze for a week, as if my favorite uncle had keeled over in front of me. An actor’s job, however, is to make sure you only know the character. If you feel as if you know an actor from watching them onscreen — beyond what you might glean from the covers of supermarket tabloids or a profile in The New Yorker — then, in a way, they’ve failed.
But perhaps things are different with television actors. After all, viewers don’t drive to a theater to see them — they welcome them right into their own homes. For eight years, America had dinner with Tony Soprano. (Admittedly, I did not. Until I’m able to sit down and plow through all six seasons of The Sopranos, I’ll personally remember Gandolfini most for getting the shit kicked out of him by Patricia Arquette in True Romance — but I know plenty who did. My own experience of shock was akin to hearing that your friend’s best friend died.) And in Gandolfini’s case, the outpouring of grief seems particularly tied to the character he so masterfully portrayed. The Sopranos ended so ambiguously, with the infamous cut-to-black finale, fans never fully processed the notion of Tony’s death. Now, he’s gone, for real.
Maybe that sounds a bit insensitive, arguing that the public is so desensitized it can’t discern between a TV character and the actor who played him. I’d say that’s not a slight, though. Gandolfini’s job was to make the world believe in Tony Soprano, and he accomplished that. Friends and family will mourn James, while the rest of us mourn Tony. That feels right to me.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.