LOS ANGELES — The first time I ever saw “The Sopranos” was in the Spring of 2001. The show was leading into its third season, and as customary, HBO was replaying Season 2 every Sunday night as a buildup. I got hooked by my dorm neighbor and great friend, Rich Kiss, who like the Sopranos themselves, hailed from New Jersey. He was a junkie for the mobster hit and I figured, if he liked it, then I would, too. One of the first episodes I remember seeing was the one where Janice kills Richie Aprile. Blown away a semi-main character would just be offed like that, I turned to Rich in disbelief and he looked at me and said, “that happens ALL THE TIME!” Of course, he knew what was coming at Season 2’s end, but when Big Pussy met the fishes, let’s just say I was the one who had trouble sleeping for a few days.
And I was forever hooked.
It wasn’t the violence that intrigued me about “The Sopranos,” however, it was the performances. They were unlike anything on television, and the actors, writers and producers knew that as much as we did. (I couldn’t even begin to tell you what else I was watching on television at this point outside of “SportsCenter.” Probably “Survivor” or Craig Kilborn.) ‘Sopranos’ was edgy. Gratuitous with its swearing and excess, and hilarious with its rough dialogue. These guys were gangsters but real people with surprisingly normal problems. They argued with their wives, their kids were a pain in the ass, and their troubles on the job always came home with them. Sure, they talked funny and dressed gaudy but we kinda liked them, even though we hated them.
At the center of it all was Tony, played to perfection by James Gandolfini, whom the world was shocked to learn died Wednesday at age 51 while on vacation in Italy. Larger than life, commanding of your undivided attention whenever he appeared on screen, and surprisingly sympathetic as the ruthless and murderous lead of the show, Galdolfini consumed the role, swallowed it whole and spit out pure gold. He made you root for the bad guy and almost had you feeling guilty when you didn’t. (One of the best illustrations of this is in the show itself, when Agent Harris, a longtime nemesis of Tony, cheered out after learning of Phil Leotardo’s death, “we’re gonna win this thing!”) Gandolfini made wanting evil to triumph cool. Make no mistake, Tony Soprano is one of the baddest men in television history, yet because of Gandolfini’s weekly performance, you wanted him to come out on top. You wanted him to finally find peace and that loving relationship with his family, to get past the panic attacks, to defeat New York. You wanted those things and you looked coldly the other way when he stepped out of bounds from time to time.
Certainly no one looked like him on television, which was another part of his appeal – he was big and balding, not exactly leading man looks – and no one could cuss like him. I’d argue he brought back creative cursing. What fun it must’ve been to write those scenes in which he went off the deep end with Carmela or Christopher or Paulie or the poor bartender at the Bada Bing, and then watch Gandolfini flawlessly execute them.
All this paved the way for characters like Don Draper and Walter White and Vic Mackey and Dexter Morgan and all the rest of our cable anti-heroes who lead questionable lives but whom we all want to see come out squeaky clean in the end. The power of the individual performance allowed not only “The Sopranos” but the rest to take big chances and change how we consumed television. It allowed Showtime to take a chance on an anti-hero, and FX and AMC and Netflix to do the same. It made Sunday nights the must-see TV night. Think about all your favorite shows… they all air on Sunday nights. That’s because of the power and the emotion and the rage and the ability of James Gandolfini, of what he did every Sunday night on HBO for 86 episodes.
He was truly amazing.
So much was written Wednesday about the man and it was all incredibly moving and tugged at your heart strings. By all accounts Gandolfini was a gentle giant who never forgot a face or an encounter, no matter how small, and made everyone feel as if they were the most important person in the room. These reflections couldn’t have been more refreshing to read. Someone who achieved his level of fame could’ve easily acted differently and no one would look the other way. Just goes shows the type of man he was and the legacy he leaves behind.
I spent any free time Wednesday watching old ‘Sopranos’ clips, thinking about his other flawless cinematic performances, and reading countless lists and reflections about the man, A co-worker and I even went and ate Italian for dinner at a place called “Godfathers,” which even had a painting on the wall inside of Tony and his crew. Just seemed like the right thing to do. And who could forget my old 1999 Chevy Tahoe, which I aptly called “Stugots” after Tony’s boat on the show. I told my buddy, Jay, that it was a night like Wednesday night I wish I still had Stugots, so I could just take a drive and pretend I was Tony Soprano huffing up the driveway one last time.
Rest In Peace, James.
LOS ANGELES — With apologies to Don Draper and Walter White, an argument could be made the two most popular television programs in the country right now are anything involving the National Football League and “Game of Thrones.” So, logically, we here at The Chris Brockman Website decided to combine the two, matching our favorite backstabbers, schemers, and philanderers of Westeros with their respective NFL counterparts. You don’t need to be a loyal book reader of the George R.R. Martin series to appreciate these footballers are who we say they are. (some spoilers ahead)
TYWIN LANNISTER — Bill Belichick, Patriots: Leader of a dynasty and the self-proclaimed “smartest guy in the room,” the similarities between Belichick and the eldest Lannister are endless. Watching Tywin talk down to his Small Council, you can almost hear his Belichikian tone. All that’s missing is cutoff armor and hooded chainmail. There’s no question these two weathered veterans are winners, leaders, and probably not as smart as they or everyone thinks they are. But any time they’re on camera, you can’t look away.
TYRION LANNISTER — Steve Smith, Panthers: Both the undersized Carolina receiver and the Imp have been counted out their whole adult lives because of their physical stature, and while Tyrion has used his brain to get ahead, Smith has used his giant heart and fierce determination. The pair are extremely crafty despite being overlooked from most. Additionally, and this is a point we can’t harp on enough, each are equally despised by their own family as evidenced by Joffrey trying to have Tyrion killed at the Battle of Blackwater, and Smith getting in multiple fights with teammates and his alleged feud with Cam Newton.
BRONN — Aaron Rodgers, Packers: Money and winning are the only pure motivators for Bronn, who is fearless, reckless, and doesn’t play by anybody’s rules. Sounds a lot like the newly-minted, richest-man-in-the-NFL Rodgers if you ask me. Bronn is also funny – have you seen a Rodgers post-game press conference? – and petty – Rodgers got miffed at “60 Minutes” for suggesting he was short for a quarterback. Just not sure if the evil notions in Green Bay come free.
PODRICK PAYNE THE SQUIRE — Josh Scobee, Jaguars: Podrick has proved to have a way with the ladies, to the amazement of Tyrion and Bronn, and the same can be said for Scobee, who has one of the hotter wives in the NFL. Like the young squire, Scobee, as a kicker, knows his role on the team and when to speak up. And like Podrick saved his Lord’s life at the Battle of Blackwater, Scobee on occasion has lifted his teammates to victory in the closing seconds with a game-winning kick.
JAIME LANNISTER — Eli Manning, Giants: By virtue of being a Manning, Eli was automatically enshrined into NFL royalty, and like the one-handed Lannister, Eli has shown his prowess for taking what he wants. You could easily pass on the moniker “Kingslayer” to No. 10 for taking down the league’s Golden Boy not once, but twice in the Super Bowl, thusly denying Tom Brady championships 4 and 5.
WALDER FREY — Al Davis, Raiders: Old, crotchety, respected and always one to hold a grudge, there may not be a better Game of Thrones / NFL match that these two, especially after what took place at the Red Wedding. Davis is renowned for suing the league he helped create and living by his “Just Win, Baby” mantra, and well, we all know how Lord Frey likes to party.
BRIENNE OF TARTH — Joe Thomas, Browns: It takes someone lacking fear to defend a blindside, and no one does that better than Joe Thomas, even though whichever QB the Browns trot out any given Sunday is likely worthless. And like Brienne, a left tackle has to be big, bullheaded, and full of duty and honor. Often overlooked in the stat line, like the lady of Tarth, Thomas often has an impact when his master is unscathed.
DAENERYS TARGARYEN — Russell Wilson, Seahawks: Like the Mother of Dragons emerged from a hopeless girl to dominate across the Narrow Sea, Wilson came out of nowhere to be a real NFL power player after a breakout 2012 season. And while Khaleesi now has a trio of new weapons in her dragons, Wilson now has Percy Harvin’s plethora of talents at his disposal. Both are now major contenders to wear the crown after being unknowns when the season (and show) began.
JORAH MORMONT — Pete Carroll, Seahawks: Jorah was disgraced and booted out of Westeros, which is not unlike Carroll’s tail-between-his-legs exit from Southern Cal following the Reggie Bush scandal. Now, both are fortunate to have fallen into backing big-time winners. Loyal, slick, wise, and cheerleaders, Jorah and Carroll are cut from the same mold and seem to have positioned themselves for long-term success.
BARRISTAN SELMY — Dick LeBeau, Steelers: It’s not often that a battle-tested warrior lives to become an old man in the Seven Kingdoms, much like the NFL translates to “Not For Long.” So it makes sense that Barristan and LeBeau are counterparts. A pair of grizzly veterans of the game, they’ve seen it all, done it all, and have survived to pass on their defensive genius to a new crop of players.
ROBB STARK — Tom Brady, Patriots: Brady is the unquestioned leader of the North, untouchable, and received this tutelage from the best; very similar to Robb, who trained under his well-respected father, Ned. And like Robb, Brady has had moments of resounding brilliance (multiple Super Bowl championships & MVPs) and ones of shake-your-head foolishness (dancing in Brazil, water sliding, ridiculous haircuts). Brady’s big-game performance of late has also matched well with the eldest Stark son, whose actions have left his men wondering if he’s fit to be King.
TALISA STARK — Gisele Bundchen: Like Talisa, Gisele stole the heart of the King of the North, and an argument could be made both Robb Stark and Tom Brady haven’t won anything since. Brady has come up short in two Super Bowls since hooking up for the former Victoria’s Secret model. Stark, meanwhile, has upset his own men, soiled the faith of an ally, and been blundering away strategic position since shacking up with the battlefield Volantis nurse.
EDDARD STARK — Brett Favre: One of only two deceased GOT characters to make the list is a fitting match for Favre. Both Ned Stark and the Ole’ Gunslinger were honorable statesmen, loyal to their homeland for many, many years before abandoning what they knew for the perils of the Big City. Favre jettisoned Green Bay for New York and then Minnesota, figuring his built-up good faith would carry over into this new surroundings, not realizing he was out of his element. And while Ned showed he could hang briefly at King’s Landing – like Favre’s career year with the Vikings – he ultimately ended up backstabbed and without his head; Favre’s magical journey ended on the sideline, consecutive games-played streak history, and after he retired, he’s barely been heard from.
JON SNOW — Wes Welker, Broncos: You could say undrafted players are the bastard children of the NFL, which would make Welker much more than Jon Snow given his success. And whether it was by his own doing or not, Welker left the safe haven of the North and joined up with the enemy on the other side of The Wall, or on his case, the Rocky Mountains. If Welker is still working for his new team’s enemy or knows more than nothing, a la Snow, has yet to be seen.
BRAN STARK — Adrian Peterson, Vikings: Both heirs of the North, Bran was thrown from a tree and lost the use of his legs, while Peterson was chopped down and needed reconstructive knee surgery. Bran has since been running like the wind in his dreams, while Peterson went out and nearly broke the NFL single-season rushing record in 2012. You almost get the feeling that Bran is destined for great things and likewise Peterson is only scratching the surface of what he could accomplish, especially after his recent 2,500-yard pronouncement.
ROOSE BOLTON — Bill Parcells: So let’s say you’ve worked your entire career for one team, had a lot of success with that team and grown really close to that team. Now let’s say, a little later on you went to work for that team’s most hated rival because they paid you a lot of money and it’s gotten to the point so much that your other team doesn’t even know you anymore. Maybe you died your hair blond, I don’t know. That would make you kind of a traitor, huh? Thought so.
HODOR — Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: Could you imagine if Gronkowski had a press conference and just said, “Hodor, Hodor, Hodor” every time someone asked him a question? It would be the greatest YouTube moment in sports. Just a big, lovable galoof is what Hodor is, and you could make a serious argument that’s exactly what Gronk is, only with more alcohol. Now if we can just get GOT’s writers to work in “Yo Soy Fiesta” as a battle cry.
THEON GREYJOY — Mark Sanchez, Jets: No one has taken public abuse and been the brunt of more media scrutiny (warranted or otherwise) and sports radio rants than Sanchez, who like Theon, can’t seem to get out of his own way. Seemingly the toast of the New York only a few years ago when he had the Jets in the AFC Championship, Sanchez is practically in shackles after the drafting of Geno Smith. Theon tried to make a bold move in taking Winterfell only to have it backfire into this weird torture play that’s hashing out slowly in Season 3. Neither is a bad guy on the surface, and unfortunately not a winners either, and I suspect both will have an unhappy ending.
STANNIS BARATHEON — Jay Cutler, Bears: When coming up with words to describe Stannis a few immediately came to mind: dull, boring, and pussy-whipped. That led me to only one NFL counterpart: Jay Cutler. Who else embodies Stannis’ spirit of being at times awesome at his position while being an enormous d-bag? Stannis had his best friend, Davos, thrown in jail! Doesn’t that remind you of Cutler screaming at his offensive line for getting sacked all the time? Literally all that’s missing is a Smokin’ Stannis Baratheon Tumblr page and we have Internet perfection.
DAVOS — Ronde Barber, Buccaneers: Davos stood by his King, Stannis, until the bitter end at the Battle of Blackwater, and you could say the same for Ronde, who remained a faithful Buccaneer following their Super Bowl title in 2003, when he no doubt had opportunities to just ship and play for a contender. While he didn’t get made to walk the plank by ownership, he might have well been, as Tampa Bay went 69-91 over the next decade.
JOFFREY BARATHEON — Tim Tebow: The most hated man in the Seven Kingdoms easily could be the most talked about, over-hyped, and dare I say, hated man in the NFL in Tim Tebow. Both Joffrey and Tebow were unfairly placed in their position of power (one by his scheming mother, the other by the scheming media machine and Josh McDaniels) and seemingly have no idea what to do. Joffrey can’t lead his men at the Battle of Blackwater, and while leading seems to be only what Tebow can do, his elsewhere skills so limited at the pro level, as evidenced by his current ouster from the league all together. Joffrey, meanwhile, doesn’t seem likely to sit on the Iron Throne for much longer.
ROBERT BARATHEON — Rex Ryan, Jets:Robert was a terrible king, but by all accounts, a great guy to be around, and he was a helluva warrior. Rex really isn’t that great of a head coach, but he sure looks like he’d be a fun guy to go to the Old Country Buffet with, and he used to scheme a good defense. Robert really liked fathering bastards and Rex, well, he liked to, well, make weird videos with his wife. Both were blubbering idiots who were mostly all show and no go. We know what happened to Robert, so I’m guessing Rex’s days are numbered.
GENDRY — Andrew Luck, Colts: Whether he knows it or not, Gendry is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and by virtue of Peyton Manning’s bum neck, Luck is the future of NFL quarterbacking. The best prospect at the position since the man he replaced, Luck’s upside is exponential, especially after his record-breaking rookie campaign. And the best thing about him, is there’s no ego. Much like Gendry, who just wants to be a part of SOMEthing, Luck is happy to be here and help his team win. The future is bright for both these young, goofy men.
SANDOR CLEGANE — Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Natural counterparts, The Hound and Roethlisberger are both larger than life, fierce warriors, and survivors of life-altering facial injuries – Big Ben’s after his June 2006 motorcycle accident and The Hound’s after his brother shoved him in a fire. Both like to party (though Ben’s days appear to be over) and never back down from a challenge. Ben is known for always playing through pain and keeping plays alive by being nearly impossible to take down, and The Hound is lauded whooping serious ass and being loyal to those he has a soft spot for.
PETYR BAELISH — Jerry Jones, Cowboys: No other owner can truly stake claim to being the NFL’s Lord of Coin like Jerry Jones, who out of his own pocket practically built the world’s greatest sports stadium. Like Baelish, Jones is extremely crafty and always scheming (how else do you explain the multitude of Draft-day trades?), likens himself as the smartest guy in the room (what other owner is also his team’s General Manager?) and commands an audience. Though you get the feeling others in Westeros laugh at Littlefinger behind his back, as I suspect those across the NFL do as the Cowboys blunder away season after season.
VARYS — Mike Shanahan, Redskins: Not similar in stature but definitely in mind, Varys and Shanahan are without a doubt the ultimate backroom deviants who know who they are and are completely comfortable in their own skin. Varys waited his whole lifetime to get his revenge on the mad scientist who crippled him while Shanahan lived through all the Raiders madness before achieving success with the Broncos. Now, he has the ear of Robert Griffin III and knows good things are on the horizon.
BERIC DONDARRION — Peyton Manning, Broncos: Manning being able to come back and have the kind of MVP 2012 season that he did after four, count ’em four, neck surgeries is damn near the equivalent of Beric coming back from the dead a half dozen times after suffering fatal battle wounds. You could also make the argument now Manning is closer to the Lord of Light given Denver’s mile-high altitude, but you’d need to check with Thoros first, since he’s the one who actually returns Beric from the other side, which we know is dark. Speaking of.
THOROS OF MYR — John Elway, Broncos: If it wasn’t for Elway and his belief in Manning returning to his Colts championship and MVP form, then the Broncos No. 18 jersey wouldn’t be flying off shelves at ludicrous speed in the 303 and 720. It’s well known The Duke likes to throw ’em back, too, and that fits well with the Brotherhood Without Banners’ red priest’s mantra of getting drunk and searching for ways to swindle gold. Thoros was a renowned warrior who now is an adviser of sort to Beric, which fits well with Elway, who is arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history and is doing a mighty fine job thus far as an executive.
MANCE RAYDER — Clay Matthews, Packers: Maniacs, defensive leaders who don’t play by anyone’s rules but their own, and strong men of the North, Matthews and Mance are quite the pair. While Mance doesn’t quite have Clay’s hair, they are both giant, rugged figures, who elicit loyalty from their men and fear in their opponents.
TORMUND GIANTSBANE — Brett Keisel, Steelers: The man with the best beard north of The Wall and the man with not only the best beard in the AFC North, but the entire NFL, are a match made in facial hair heaven.
— thanks to James Wright for his contributions to this column.