I didn’t know him, and I guess now I never will. But I feel like I did. We all did. Not just average television fans, but the Italian-Americans like myself who have that love/hate relationship with mafia fiction. We loved to watch Tony Soprano (or Michael Corleone) exact revenge on a sworn enemy, not just as a matter of business, but in order to protect his family and to uphold the twisted yet noble moral code of the mob system. We winced when he beat somebody to death, but we wept when he was almost killed as he got into his SUV, one of the bullets just missing and shattering the glass milk jar he was holding.
As Italian/Americans we feel this joy, but also repulsion at the stereotyping of all Italians as mafiosos. Thugs. Criminals. Less-thans. Or like the time my mom, who is 100% Sicilian, walked into a bookstore in Maine looking for a children’s book by an African-American author and was told by the shopkeeper that they didn’t carry that particular book because it would never sell. Why, my mom asked? Because, the shopkeeper told her, “the darkest people we have around here are the Italians.”
The character he played in his most famous role was either an honorable family man or New Jersey’s worst thug, depending on your point of view, or the day of the week. His death, like some certain types of celebrity death, causes sadness for sure, but if we are honest, it’s a grief that doesn’t quite rise to the level of tears. How can it be, unless we knew him?
Maybe we did know just a little bit about James Gandolfini through his most famous role. But maybe we didn’t know anything about him at all. Let’s remember that he was a man, with a wife and children, and not Tony Soprano. Even though we loved him for the gift he so honestly and selflessly gave us, let’s please not make any mafia funeral jokes or confuse the real man with the man he played on TV. That won’t do us any good. By joking about his fictional character’s death, we cheapen his real death. I know we all want him back. We all want just a little more time with him. Like any loved one. Any dear one. Mostly, we want so desperately to see what he would have done next.
Maybe now more than ever we wish we could just give him a hug, a bear hug no doubt, clap him hard on the back, and say “How you doin?”
Maybe even give him a kiss on each cheek, like real family does. Smell the scent of him. Feel the scruff on his neck against our lips.
I know I would.