Some actors are best known for an iconic TV character they've played. But most of them have had at least one other notable role to be remembered by. Jackie Gleason isn't just Ralph Kramden, he's also Minnesota Flats and Buford T. Justice. Henry Winkler isn't just The Fonz, he's also Barry Zuckerkorn. (And, to acknowledge one who recently left us, Larry Hagman's legacy isn't just J.R. Ewing, its also Major Nelson.) But so far, no matter how many other gigs he's had before, during and since, James Gandolfini is pretty much just Tony Soprano.
This isn't to say Gandolfini isn't a great actor. He's delivered many terrific performances in many films. But he isn't known for playing any other stand-out characters. Right now, Gandolfini occupies an interesting middle ground: He's not exactly a movie star, and he's not exactly a character actor. With his girth and his bald head and his inescapable New Jersey accent, it's hard for him to cover much of a physical range; he'll always look like that mobster patriarch from “The Sopranos.” But internally, he can do much more, and all it takes is a well-written non-mobster part for us to forget Tony for a moment.
Over the next month, Gandolfini will appear in three new movies, all of which have been earning him some of his finest praises since "The Sopranos" went off the air five years ago. The first is “Killing Them Softly,” which opens this weekend. When you see it you'll think he's not trying very hard to break out of his mold. He understands completely, though, as he initially told filmmaker Andrew Dominik that he wasn't interested in playing a mafia hit man since it would obviously remind audiences of Tony. However, he eventually changed his mind, which is good because both the film and his performance have been getting great reviews.
Of course, the typecasting Gandolfini has faced didn't start with “The Sopranos." One of the actor's best-remembered characters is Virgil, a hit man in “True Romance,” who has a nasty run-in with Patricia Arquette. Throughout the '90s, he played many more low-lifes and organized crime types, in movies including “8mm,” “The Mighty” and “She's So Lovely." He also appeared as a drug dealer's henchman in “Get Shorty,” a Russian gangster in “Terminal Velocity” and another mafia hit man in “The Juror.” Then, after “The Sopranos,” he gave us one more big-screen assassin in “The Mexican.”
When Gandolfini wasn’t playing bad guys, he did what most mafia sorts do for a break, portraying equivalent roles on the other side of the law, including cops and military leaders. The latter has yielded more noteworthy roles, in part because he looks as good in a uniform as he does in a button-down retro bowling-style shirt. Examples here include “Crimson Tide” and Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop.” There’s also “The Last Castle,” which was his first big billing in a film following his rise to fame. In the upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty,” which hits theaters in December, Gandolfini returns to this box to play CIA head Leon Panetta. And just as he did with “Killing Them Softly,” he’s reportedly excellent, in spite of the typecasting.
Gandolfini’s performance as Panetta could very well be a path his career will go in down the road, with him playing another sort of good-side-of-the-law thug: a politician. He’s already been a lieutenant governor in “All the King’s Men” and a big-city mayor in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” (It’s only a matter of time before his New Jersey roots are put to use for a character meant to be a slightly veiled version of Chris Christie.) Even if he winds up being typecast as a politician or military leader, at least he wouldn't be a mobster. What’s most important here is finding one other major character he can be remembered for.
So what is the likelihood of Gandolfini doing this? If you take his performance in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” into account, maybe not as high as we hope. His performance as Big Dave is really just a more weasly combination of the military, mobster and political hats he normally wears; a charming brute who followed a different path as a legit businessman. He’s basically Tony Soprano in black and white, running a department store. Just barely displaying signs that he could be a character actor, Gandolfini’s too much of a straight man here, especially next to much of the Coen Brother regulars. And if he couldn’t manage to be iconic in a major role in a Coen movie (something many actors have been able to do in their other films), it could mean he'll be stuck in the mobster/cop pit forever.
On the bright side, it’s clear that Gandolfini is interested in trying different things, as we’ve seen with his vocal work in “Where the Wild Things Are” and his interest in working with distinct directorial talents like the Coens, Iannucci and John Turturro. Perhaps he ought to go out for more comedy material. He’s said he believes himself to be more like Woody Allen than Tony Soprano in real life, so let’s see Woody cast him in a leading role. Or, the actor could return to HBO for a recurring part on Iannucci’s “Veep.” (Maybe that’s a good place for that pseudo-Christie.)
That said, Gandolfini does have some funny-sounding stuff on the horizon, such as an untitled project from Nicole Holofcener, in which he’ll star as the ex-husband of Catherine Keener and new love interest of “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as well as the comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” where he’ll play a casino owner (hopefully not one who is very mobster-like) whose establishment hosts celebrity magicians played by Jim Carrey, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. He’s also set to co-star with Carell in a period comedy titled “The Bone Men,” in which the duo will play paleontologists. Lastly, he'll be reuniting with "Sopranos" creator David Chase this December for the decidedly non-mob flick "Not Fade Away" (it follows a group of friends in the 1960s who try to start a rock band and make it big). Whether one of these will feature the actor as a character who will go down in history as the major film role of James Gandolfini, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Virgil (‘True Romance’)
His first breakthrough came with his second Tony Scott film. There’s not much to like about a guy who’d beat up a woman, but in retrospect, you can see that Tony Soprano charm somewhere behind the minor character’s smile at the beginning of his big scene opposite Patricia Arquette.
Bear (‘Get Shorty’)
Long-haired and bearded, this henchman/stuntman is about as physically different as we’ve ever seen Gandolfini. Otherwise he’s one of the early thugs that might have helped pave the way for Tony Soprano. It’s hard to buy him <a href="http://movieclips.com/VZ6o-get-shorty-movie-testing-bears-stuntman-skills/">being thrown around and beaten up by John Travolta</a>, though.
Winston Baldry (‘The Mexican’)
Here, Gandolfini plays a homosexual hit man opposite Brad Pitt. While he may not have offered too much variety during his early years as Tony Soprano, his cordial scenes with Julia Roberts at least provided a contrast to his gangster roles.
“Big Dave” Brewster (‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’)
There’s a kind of nerdiness to this big department store boss that makes his moments of anger feel more extreme. He’s a character that doesn’t initially seem so bad, but we grow to dislike him more and more with each scene.
Col. Winter (‘The Last Castle’)
Mostly memorable because it’s one of his largest film roles, this also might sadly be his worst performance ever. The voice, the glasses -- he just seems sort of silly. Perhaps he’s just miscast as the military prison warden opposite a screen icon like Robert Redford.
Nick Murder (‘Romance & Cigarettes’)
It’s wonderful to see Gandolfini having so much fun with a role, but his wackiness is very hard to swallow. He ought to do more blue-collar parts like this one (although musicals might not really be the best thing for him).
Lt. Gen. George Miller (‘In the Loop’)
This character would be a lot more remarkable if he wasn’t ultimately upstaged by the brilliantly mad performance by Peter Capaldi. Still, there isn’t a filmmaker we’d like Gandolfini to reteam with more than Armando Iannucci.
Doug Riley (‘Welcome to the Rileys’)
We may wish he didn’t try an accent and we may wish he had a climactic emotional scene somewhere to push his performance to greater measure, but overall, this role is one of his largest yet. Here he’s tremendously engaging for such a simple, yet also somewhat unlikely premise.
Carol (‘Where the Wild Things Are’)
With such a distinctly recognizable voice, it’s surprising he hadn’t done animated characters before this. Behind the mask of the CGi beast, Gandolfini not only eludes his iconic Soprano appearance, but he also finds a playfulness in his speech that we’ve never heard with his physical performances.
Craig Gilbert (‘Cinema Verite’)
One of his few really stand-alone, non-typecast parts that doesn’t fit with his usual material. In the made-for-HBO drama, about the making of ‘70s TV sensation “American Family,” he plays real-life reality television pioneer Craig Gilbert. He’s actually the best thing about this mainly corny affair, especially because the character’s motives throughout are so intriguing.