Clive James on The Sopranos

Fifteen years after The Sopranos aired on British TV, read Clive James' brilliant piece on the show's genius from 2003

The untimely death of the great, hulking, utterly invulnerable-looking James Gandolfini has robbed us of the chance to see what the rest of his career might have been like. Since the final season of The Sopranos he had been shaping up as an unusually imaginative producer, but now we will have to remember him just as an actor, and mainly, of course in the role of Tony Soprano. In 2004, when there was still another season of The Sopranos to come, I wrote a piece in homage to its accomplishment. Some of the show’s fans thought that the final season was a let-down, but my younger daughter and I have just finished watching the whole thing again (four episodes every Saturday) and we are united in the belief that it was great to the end.

And for all the skills of its wonderful cast, the greatest thing about the show was Gandolfini. An actor has come a long way towards monumentality when his merest smile can seem to threaten a room full of grown men with death. What you never really believed, however – even in the last episode, when he was holed up with his guns and waiting for the enemy – was that death could threaten him. I got the sense that he was watching me as I wrote, so I tried hard to get it right; while always trying to remind myself, of course, that he wasn’t really a gangster, just an actor. Given time, he would almost certainly have done so many other good things that he would have outgrown the charming but sinister legend he had created on the small screen. The world would have realised that James Gandolfini was even bigger than Tony Soprano. But when I wrote this piece, being as big as Tony The Sopranos: The Comp... Best Price: $39.24 Buy New $496.01 (as of 07:15 EST - Details) seemed plenty big enough.

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In the dark night of the soul, it is often three o’clock in the afternoon on the pool terrace of a mobster’s house in New Jersey. The rule of law exists only to be flouted; power to be flaunted; any scruple to be parodied. It’s appalling. I love it.

Love it more, in fact, than the Godfather movies, which are supposedly the superior cinematic achievement, the fons et origo from which the mere television serial draws and dilutes its inspiration. We shouldn’t let the size of the picture fool us. In the little picture, a lot more is going on, and it’s a lot more true. David Chase, the writer-producer who made The Sopranos in the same way that Aaron Sorkin made The West Wing, was not involved in the Godfather project. Chase served his apprenticeship as a writer for The Rockford Files and later as a writer-producer for Northern Exposure. His idea of a big movie was Fellini’s 8.5; of a crime movie, Cul de sac; superior European stuff.

There is no doubt, however, that the Godfather trilogy was on his mind, because it is on the minds of all the male characters in The Sopranos. Only two of its main actors were ever directed by Francis Ford Coppola: Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) both played minor roles in Godfather II.

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