Change for a Year

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When Your Heroes Die

In many ways it’s silly to mourn the death of a celebrity. It’s a one-sided relationship, and chances are you never knew the real them: their fears, their loves, the intimate moments — sometimes throwaway, sometimes profound — that can only be shared by those in a tight-knit circle.

But when I learned today that James Gandolfini had died, I was truly sad. I grew up watching him as Tony Soprano, the labored breathing exploding into anger, the love for both his families, the depression and the ecstasy. Someone once said that television actors are on a different level. In film you spend just a few hours with a character in the movie theater. In television you invite them into your home every week for years on end. Sunday nights were for Gandolfini to come into my home. Now he is dead. Just 51 years old. And I will no longer be able to pick up a new film and spend my Sunday nights listening to new stories from him.

One scene has always stuck in my mind. Tony walked down the sidewalk, having just left a funeral of an old man and chatting with a gentleman he’d gotten to know.

James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano“We’re next?” the man says to Tony.

“Huh?”

“They’re gone. We’re the old guys now. Feels weird, doesn’t it, being the next in line to die?”

There’s a moment when he’s being interviewed on Inside the Actor’s Studio where he begins to talk about acting and having a point of view and what draws him to a role. “To me it’s telling a story about blue-collar America and how they get …” and then he stops, seeming timid and shy. He trails off and says only, “I don’t want to get too soapbox,” before going to commercial. And when I saw that I realized how thoughtful and gentle and honest he came across, and I respected him even more.

He once told a reporter, “I’m an actor. I do a job, and I go home. Why are you interested in me? You don’t ask a truck driver about his job.”

Roger Ebert, another hero who has died, wrote of his performance in The Last Castle:

Redford and Gandolfini are two reasons the movie plays so well. Redford, because he does what’s expected, as a calm, strong, unbreakable leader. Gandolfini, because he does what is not expected, and creates not simply a villain, but a portrait of a type that is so nuanced, so compelling, so instinctively right, that we are looking at the performance of a career. This actor, who can be so disarmingly genial (see his scene-stealing in “The Mexican“), who can play bad guys we enjoy (see “The Sopranos”), here transforms his face and posture to make himself into a middle-aged boy, a hulking schoolyard bully. He does a lot with his mouth, making the lips thin and hurt, as if he is getting back for a lifetime of wounds and disappointments. Col. Winter’s childhood must have been hell.

roger_ebertEbert passing away was like losing a close friend as well, yet he never met me or knew I existed. When he died I wrote, “There may be no single author I’ve enjoyed reading more than Roger Ebert.” To read other movie reviewers and then read him is a revelation in how to speak to an audience and to entertain and to engage. It is no wonder he won a Pulitzer. His blog was the best on the web, and the poetry of his essays and the arrangement of his words took my breath away. When I write, Ebert is often the standard I try to live up to, yet never can.

Many heroes have died this year. I’m only 28. I’ve lost my grandpa, my grandma, a few acquaintances from high school. I can’t imagine the amount of death that must surround people as they age, outlasting everyone until all your heroes have gone, only the young remaining.

I know someone with a brain tumor. He told me he’s moving to the beach, leaving Wisconsin to die in the sunshine with toes buried in hot sand. A while back he shared his dream of retiring in Jamaica, smoking away retirement years with his wife and basking in the sun. I’m glad to see him go.

I saw another moment of death this year as well. It was both poignant and tragic, but it’s private and I will not reveal it here. I will only say, no one wants to die, even those who say they are ready. I believe fear overtakes us all.

The great Christopher Hitchens said it best, with both insight and the usual disdain for religion that carried through until his death in December 2011:

It will happen to all of us, that at some point you get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party’s over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on — but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you. That’s the reflection that I think most upsets people about their demise. All right, then, because it might make us feel better, let’s pretend the opposite. Instead, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told, Great news: this party’s going on forever – and you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay; the boss says so. And he also insists that you have a good time.

It’s a nice thought. All your heroes up there waiting. I can chat about blue-collar life with Gandolfini and Ebert can introduce us to all the cinema greats I’ve missed. Richie Havens can play “Freedom” on and endless loop, without the yearning and pain and desire from the Woodstock performance — he is already free as of 2013. And, of course, Hitchens can serve the drinks and pontificate.

A nice thought, and maybe it’s more than just a thought. But that’s another discussion entirely.

For more check out this excellent tribute to Gandolfini by Matt Zoller Seitz. Or head over to YouTube and watch a rare, hour-long interview with the him on Inside the Actors Studio.

2 Comments

  1. Nice tribute to both Gandolfini and Ebert. I enjoyed the work of both of them at least as much and usually more than that of their peers. I think the great sadness in death is the feeling left only for the living. And then, as you said, the party goes on.

  2. This was a nice tribute, I say! I loved him on the big screen & in television series too!

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