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RIP Tony Soprano


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



The British know. Their television and movie stars are like real people, except they can act. They look normal, with blemishes. Think Shirley Valentine, or Young Mister Grace. A few are pretty, some not so much. 


Acting trumps beauty. 


Americans, on the other hand, prefer style over substance in stars, always picking pretty people, their ability to act almost incidental. On the rare occasion you get beauty and brains. Paul Newman could act. Meryl Streep can act. Most, however, remain overpaid eye candy. 


As a result, the British movies and shows are far better, not to mention much more realistic. It's Maggie Smith versus Pamela Anderson. 


As the kids used to say, "Duh?" 


Even actors who are supposed to be ugly on American television are usually just thin, pretty people wearing eyeglasses. That's so they can take off the glasses in the last five minutes, the ugly-duckling-to-swan time of many sitcoms. 


James Gandolfini was a major American exception. And by "major" I don't mean his 260-pound bulk. I mean his genius. 


Famous for his role as murdering mobster Tony Soprano, Gandolfini was a fine actor, an exceptional actor. His Tony Soprano could stumble down a suburban driveway to fetch the newspaper, rubbing the night before's heinous acts from his sleepy eyes, and without uttering a word deliver an Emmy-worthy performance. 


I am not a mafia movie fan. Even the excellent "Godfather" trilogy was not high on my list. So when people kept telling me I'd like the violent, profane, mobster-driven, HBO soap opera "The Sopranos," I had my doubts. 


It took watching about five minutes of the show to change my mind. The writing was excellent. The actors were, to a role, good. And James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano was historic. 


The best thing about the show was its ability to mess with your mind, taking you to the edge of sympathy for characters without conscience, snatching you back at the end. There were no anti-heroes in the show, only brutal mobsters. 


Tony Soprano was a family man, of sorts, if you didn't count his job and endless list of mistresses. In one episode Tony is dutifully escorting his smart high-school-age daughter to various colleges she is considering. He drops her at one ivy-covered stop and matter-of-factly goes to off an enemy who happens to live near the campus. Then he returns for the daughter, all paternal concern. 


Whenever we are tempted to love the emotionally timorous Tony, the writers remind us of how he makes a living. And they spare no detail. 


Gandolfini is dead at 51. But he left us the character Tony Soprano, a colorful, corrupt and complex reminder of who not to be. 


Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a nationally syndicated columnist, lives near Iuka.



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