Tony Soprano was the face of the American mob at the start of the 21st century. John Gotti, Vincent Gigante, Nicky Scarfo, and Joey Merlino might have been the real-life characters whose names showed up in headlines and at the top of racketeering indictments. But for most Americans, it was Tony.
The series' creator, David Chase, and its writers captured the essence of an underworld in disarray, and Gandolfini brought it to life. This was the Americanization of the Mafia, and, as Tony slowly and agonizingly realized, it signaled its demise.
What played out in the series reflected what was happening in courtrooms around the country. Turncoat testimony from made members of the mob gutted the once-secret society. The only offers that couldn't be refused were coming from the FBI, and from the publishing and movie industries.
Sammy Gravano, Phil Leonetti, Anthony Accetturo, Alphonse D'Arco - the list of those who shattered the code of silence goes on and on. Omerta was no more. Men of honor, if they ever existed, were part of the previous generation, both in the real world and in The Sopranos.
Tony longed for the old days, when his late father, Johnny Boy, and his now-demented Uncle Junior "ran North Jersey." Instead, he had to deal with an underworld where loyalty and family were token expressions designed to sugarcoat the treachery and deceit that were the nature of the business. His struggle to survive, physically and mentally, was Shakespearean.
Like all of us, Tony wanted things to be better. Like most of us, he couldn't make them so.
Tony Soprano was an everyman, just a guy struggling to live comfortably in suburbia, beset with the problems of any wage earner: household bills, car payments, mortgages. His personal life was a shambles. He had a nagging mother, an overbearing wife, and two spoiled, upper-middle-class teenage children whose sense of entitlement drove him nuts.
That he was also a mob boss didn't make it any easier - or harder to relate to. And that's why we watched every episode.
Americans also have a long-standing fascination with outlaws, whether it was Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, or Vito Corleone. The lure of the rogue, operating outside the law and on his own terms, draws us in.
Gandolfini's Tony Soprano belongs in the pantheon of great cinematic gangsters, right up there with Paul Muni's Scarface, Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar, and Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro's Vito Corleone.
The Sopranos faded to black with that final scene in the diner. Tony arrives first and begins flipping through the choices on the table jukebox: "Who Will You Run To" by Heart, "Don't Stop Believin' " by Journey, "I've Gotta Be Me" by Tony Bennett. He puts a coin in the box, and the sounds of Journey's signature song provide the background music for what happens next.
Tony's wife, son, and daughter all arrive separately and join him at the table. They leaf through the menus and order onion rings. Then the screen fades to black and we are left to wonder: Was a hit man coming to the diner that night? Or was Tony simply enjoying a typical suburban dining-out experience - complete with burgers and fries and onion rings - with his typical suburban family?
With his receding hairline, sad eyes, and a body that clearly was not sculpted in a fitness center, Gandolfini didn't look like a movie star. But he took a character and made it his own, turning it into an icon, a mob boss for modern-day America.
That was both his blessing and his curse. The success of the show made him wealthy and famous, and it gave him the freedom every actor dreams of. He could pick and choose what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.
But he could never get away from Tony Soprano - even, or especially, in death.
George Anastasia is a former Inquirer reporter who has written extensively about organized crime. He can be reached at email@example.com.