The Jewish Side of James Gandolfini

Tony Soprano Knew He Was in a 'Very Jewish Business'

Meyer’s Racket: James Gandolfini, who died at 51, wasn’t Jewish. But he played one on the big screeen.
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Meyer’s Racket: James Gandolfini, who died at 51, wasn’t Jewish. But he played one on the big screeen.

By Nathan Abrams (Haaretz)

Published June 20, 2013.
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Italian-American actor James Gandolfini, who died at 51, while not Jewish, showed a deep affinity with Jews. His most iconic role, Tony Soprano, in the award-winning mafia TV series “The Sopranos,” was engaged in a very Jewish business. There were many Jewish gangsters and criminals both in film and reality. These included crime czar Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) – a fictional character, based heavily on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky.

One of Tony’s closest confidants was Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, a retired music industry producer who knew Tony’s late father. Tony often relied on Hesh for advice (and occasionally money) and, in return, he was one of the few characters not to meet an untimely death.

Brutal but fragile, Tony struggled with the emotional demands of being the head of a family, in both senses of that term. Consequently, he attended regular sessions with a psychoanalyst. Although he chooses another Italian-American, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), as his therapist, he is very aware of the profession’s Jewish provenance. As his disgusted mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) bluntly put it, “Everybody knows that it’s a racket for the Jews.”

Tony’s daughter, Meadow, was played by a Jewish actress (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). When Meadow begins to date a fellow student at Columbia University, who is half-black and half-Jewish, Tony has much to say about it, but expresses no annoyance at his Jewishness.

Outside of “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini played Tony Baldessari in Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992), a police drama that unravels within New York City’s Hasidic community. He teamed up with the Jewish director again in 1996 for “Night Falls on Manhattan.” In between those two films he appeared in Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” (1995).

But perhaps his most Jewish role came in Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic illustrated children’s story.

For more, go to Haaretz

Gandolfini, whose performance as Tony Soprano made him a household name and ushered in a new era of American television drama, had been scheduled to attend the closing of the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on Saturday.

He may have suffered a heart attack, Mara Mikialian, the spokeswoman for the HBO network that produced The Sopranos, told Reuters.

He was taken from his Rome hotel to the city’s Umberto I general hospital where staff found his heart had already stopped at about 11 p.m. local time (2100 GMT), a hospital spokesman said.

Since “The Sopranos” ended its six-season run in June 2007, Gandolfini appeared in a number of big-screen roles, including “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the crime drama “Killing Them Softly.”


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