Here's the thing: New Jersey wasn't ready to close the book on James Gandolfini, and that's because we weren't — and still aren't — ready to close the book on Tony Soprano.
Unfair to lump the man and his role together at this time? Perhaps. But life and art have this way of twisting themselves together, and that's exactly what happened to Gandolfini when it came to his portrayal of Tony Soprano.
Between the real Gandolfini — by all accounts, a kind, soft-spoken, charitable man — and the fictional Soprano — who was none of the above — it's one multi-headed New Jersey archetype. All us New Jerseyans have a little bit of both of them in us. Yin and Yang. Which is why the outpouring of TweetGrief and FacebookForlornness after Gandolfini's death Wednesday evening felt a little more real and heartfelt to me.
Listen: I didn't know Gandolfini. I have no right, as a human first or a columnist second, to pretend to be saddened by the death of a man I never met.
But I knew Tony Soprano.
All of New Jersey knew Tony Soprano. That's why we watched the show the way we did. According to a 2001 PublicMind poll, nearly half of Sunday night New Jersey television viewers tuned in to “The Sopranos.' And while the exploits of Tony and his gang, Tony and his family, Tony and his goomahs made for exquisite television, you can be sure New Jersey residents tuned in for something more: It was like looking into a mirror.
I grew up in Parsippany, literally 10 miles from the Soprano home in North Caldwell. Forget the mobsters — though I did know a few of them — it was the whole shebang, from the way people talked to the way they behaved to what they ate and how they ate it that kept us coming back each week. Every detail of the show rang true.
And we're not done with it.
A few weeks back, I sat down with Steve Schirripa, who played Bobby Bacala on “The Sopranos.' He was in Princeton promoting his book, and I was chosen to have a “sitdown' with him at the Princeton Public Library. He was a gracious guy, talked about his book, answered questions about his book, and then, at my prodding, started talking about “The Sopranos.'
People in the audience couldn't get enough. Question after question about the show, all leading to the big question, to which Schirripa didn't hesitate in answering.
And now a few weeks later, in light of the death of Gandolfini, it's nice to imagine Tony did in fact walk out of Holstein's that night.
It's so trite, what I'm about to say, but it doesn't make it any less true. Life imitated art. The cut to black was unexpected and unfair in both the show and in the life of Gandolfini.
We weren't done with Tony Soprano. And by obvious extension, we weren't done with James Gandolfini.
The man leaves behind a teenage son, a baby daughter, a wife. He was more than just a character on TV. We know that, we respect that, we're not idiots.
But because of the role he played on this one television show, there's a big shade of grey between where fiction starts and facts end. James Gandolfini was Tony Soprano, Tony Soprano (and the world he inhabited) was New Jersey, and thus New Jersey was Gandolfini, and that's why it feels OK to mourn a man we never knew.
Make sense? Maybe this will help. From season 3, episode 9, “The Telltale Moozadell':
Dr. Jennifer Melfi: Your thoughts have sort-of an Eastern flavor to them.
Tony Soprano: Well, I've lived in Jersey all my life.