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 — What is it about villains that piques our interest as people? Think about your favorite movies or TV shows; all the most complex, interesting and really, best characters are the antagonists. You wouldn’t love “The Godfather” if Michael Corleone didn’t take the family business’ reigns by killing off his competition, and later, even his brother; Sonny sure wasn’t going to do it. Same with “The Sopranos.” Tony Soprano is literally one of the worst persons ever; deceiving, muderous, philandering, but did we want him to go to jail? Did we want him to die at the end. I know I didn’t.
Don Draper, Walter White, The Joker, Eric Cartman, J.R. Ewing, David Caruso in Jade; all evil and deplorable as people, yet we root for them, and if you’re honest, feel sad when they come upon bad things even though they deserve it. At its core, there’s something fun about rooting for the bad guy; the rebel dressed in black. He always walks under cool music, delivers the most memorable lines, and even if he dies in the end, we want to be them. Except Scrooge McDuck, he was just mean and had a tail.
In sports, rooting for the bad guy isn’t as easy — in fact, the easiest thing to do to HATE the bad guy — except when he’s on your team; then you see past what makes him so unlikeable (I’m looking at you, Pistons/Alex Rodriguez/Sean Avery/James Harrison fans). You don his jersey, feed his hype and make excuses for his jerkdom. Admittedly, it’s harder to be a true villain in team sports (I still contend LeBron James should’ve become the ultimate NBA villain, and in a way he sort of did but not on purpose; he still thinks he’s a good guy and wonders why he’s so disliked), but individually both being a villain and rooting for a villain is much easier.
I’ll never forgive Tiger Woods after the scandal for wanting to be liked again; being the villain on the golf course would’ve been 100-times cooler. Think about it. If you’re looking for pub, magazine covers and the ire of the crowd, nothing beats being the villain. It’s why it’s much more fun to cheer against the heel in professional wrestling.
I’ll again be rooting for the bad guy Saturday when Floyd Mayweather, Jr. steps into the ring to fight Miguel Cotto in the latest boxing “mega-fight” in Las Vegas. The two 150-pounders are set to duke it out in yet another match which doesn’t feature Manny Pacquiao and Mayweather squaring off and will probably disappointment the million-plus who purchase it for $70 on pay-per-view.
If you’ve watched any of HBO’s outstanding “24/7” leading up to the fight, or any of the program’s featuring Mayweather in recent years, or follow him on Twitter, or have read anything about him, you know what the 42-0 fighter is all about. On the show alone he’s bought $300,000 Rolls Royces, closed amusement parks for his family and friends, made six-figure sports bets, referenced dog fighting, went shopping with a backback full of cash, and unapologetically and openly taunted his opponents. He’s traded verbal assaults with his father, talked about his upcoming 90-day jail sentence, his legacy (he thinks he’s the greatest of all-time; shocking, I know), Manny Pacquaio, lit 100-dollar bills on fire, partied with Ray-J and 50 Cent and on and on. It’s amazing TV and completely unscripted. He’s selling himself and his “Money May” brand and he does it better than any athlete alive right now; he’s guaranteed $32 million from his fight vs. Cotto and possibly more.
Here’s the thing, though: I like Floyd Mayweather. I like him despite on the surface he stands for everything I’m against as a person. But as an athlete, he’s what I admire. He’s brash, unafraid (sort of, since he hasn’t yet agreed to fight Pacquiao, though the converse is true as well), extremely confident and performs on gameday with an unmatched gusto. He believes he’s never going to lose. And he hasn’t.
I want him to keep winning, too. The more Mayweather wins the more he can keep living his lifestyle and building this “Money May” persona, which means the more people will hate him, and when both he and Pacquiao finally agree to fight each other, more people will care and will shill out the cash for the pay-per-view, only making him richer. Boxing might be dying as a sport (name one heavyweight champ other an a Klitchko or big fight that didn’t include Mayweather) and if you put retired NFL players and boxers in a police lineup you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart; not to mention boxing’s concussion and brain problems leading most young Americans to choose a different sports path, but you have to respect what Mayweather has done and is doing both in and out of the ring.
He’s the last true villain and he knows it. And see him ride in on the black horse Saturday and continue to fabricate his dark legend. Don’t be afraid to cheer him. He’d rather you boo, of course, but doing so on either side will only fuel him to continue on his path away from our hearts. All part of the villain script.