Some of us (not naming names) may or may not have ever watched more than a few episodes of “The Sopranos.” But one needn’t have delved into the world of New Jersey mafia to know that James Gandolfini was one of the greatest actors of our age. His death at only 51 has robbed us of not only many great performances, but a man who, by all accounts, was warm, introspective and very caring — the opposite of his most famous character. Here are eight screen performances
'True Romance' (1993)
Many of us first noticed Gandolfini when he crashed this Quentin Tarantino-Tony Scott production around the halfway mark. He’s all smiles when he first swings by, playing an enforcer for the fearsome drug kingpin from whom lovers on the lam Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette stole. After a killer convo with stoner layabout Brad Pitt (with whom he’d later act in “The Mexican” and "Killing Them Softly" — more on them later), he finds Arquette in her hotel room. There, he unleashes hell, leading to an ugly scene as great as the even more famous tete-a-tete in the same film between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. As Tarantino pointed out, it’s entirely possible that Arquette’s character could be killed, with the rest of the film devoted to Slater’s hunt for revenge. But what really makes the scene is how we’re not sure how gruesome Gandolfini is until it’s too late.
'Get Shorty' (1995)
The gangsters in Elmore Leonard’s novels are a lot more human than most in the genre. They can even be sweethearts. Such is Gandolfini’s Bear, henchman to Delroy Lindo’s moneyed Hollywood drug dealer. He wishes he weren’t so nice: A frustrated almost-badass, Bear tries to be intimidating, but is always defeated by John Travolta’s cinephilic loan shark. Travolta feels bad for him, and the two develop a gradual mutual respect that comes in handy during the climax.
'The Mexican' (2001)
At the height of “Sopranos” fever, Gandolfini took some Hollywood paychecks — but only the kind that would challenge him. In this overhated comedy-thriller, he’s once again a member of the underworld: A fearful hitman out to whack stars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. He’s also gay, and he winds up befriending, not killing, Roberts. The two spend the middle section two bonding. He even gets laid. It’s an incredibly touching performance in a film that has tonal problems, and when he abruptly leaves the movie never gets the magic back.
'The Man Who Wasn’t There' (2001)
Gandolfini is only in the first half hour-and-change of the Coen Brothers’ existentialist neo-noir. (SPOILER: His department store king is accidentally killed by Billy Bob Thornton’s tacitrun barber during a fight started by Gandolfini.) But he fits right into the mannered, retro acting style, first as overly chummy, then, once Thornton tries to blackmail him, sinister. As usual, you’re never sure what Gandolfini is capable of.
'In the Loop' (2009)
Half of TV legend Armando Iannucci’s spin-off of his brilliant British government show “The Thick of It” takes place in D.C., and who better to fling insults than Gandolfini? Keeping his own with — in fact rising to the top of — an incredible, quip-flinging cast from both sides of the Atlantic, he plays a dove general trying to halt an impending war in a never-named Middle Eastern country. Despite his stance on war, he’s nevertheless brimming over with aggression. The highlight is a scene where he goes toe-to-toe with Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, the film’s Rahm Emmanuel-esque profanity monster/spin doctor. Tucker gets in the final blow, but it’s a thrilling tussle.
'Not Fade Away'/'Zero Dark Thirty'/'Killing Them Softly' (2012)
Last year was a banner year for Gandolfini. In “Not Fade Away,” made by his “Sopranos” boss David Chase, he was a rigid, old school father disapproving of his wouldbe-rocker son in the 1960s. What starts off as cliche gradually peels back layers, eventually revealing a delicate, heartbroken man who’s forced to release the son who’s already abandoned him. (For more on this performance, read Glenn Kenny’s excellent, moving analysis/elegy to Gandolfini.) He only had two or three scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but he owns them, even walking away with the film’s best line: In response to a lackey’s summation of Jessica Chastain’s character as “smart,” he snaps, “We’re ALL smart, Jeremy.” He also only has two scenes in “Killing Them Softly,” an unjustly ignored gutter noir he briefly visits as a spent, derelict enforcer who, rather than do his job, drinks too much and picks a fight with a hooker. Once again reunited with Brad Pitt, the actor tries to reason with Gandolfini, but Gandolfini is too far gone, too despicable, to be saved. An entire movie could be about his character, but he gets it done in only a handful of thrilling minutes.
See also: “Crimson Tide,” “She’s So Lovely,” “A Civil Action,” “8mm,” “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Violet & Daisy” and — why not? — every other film he ever made, even if just briefly, wonderful.