James Gandolfini and 'The Sopranos' Television Legacy

James Gandolfini's performance made the anti-hero a television norm.

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Every obituary published about James Gandolfini highlighted his performance as Tony Soprano, with one of the many tragic details of his death being that he was just beginning to step out of the shadow of that iconic role.

"The Sopranos" transformed James Gandolfini from an unknown actor to the model of the modern day anti-hero, and together, Gandolfini and "The Sopranos" changed television forever.

[READ: James Gandolfini Dies at 51]

About a contemporary New Jersey mafia family, "The Sopranos" represented the modern incarnation of a popular American tale when it premiered in 1999.

"The American epic was no longer about the geographic frontier but the urban frontier," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. By the '70s, the cowboy heroes of western epics had been replaced by scheming mobsters in films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas."

"What [Gandolfini] did was bring it to television, to the homes of millions of people on the small screen. It brought the concept of the mafia family dynamic into the homes of American audience," says Rob Weiner, an associate librarian on pop culture at Texas Tech University. "He was 'The Godfather' figure for the millennium."

Tony Soprano twisted the common mafia trope. The first episode introduced him not just as a mob boss, but also as a guy with troublesome kids, a boat load of mommy issues and a demanding wife.

"This is a guy with the same old problems we got, he just happens to kill people and order hits," Thompson says. Look no further than to Tony's therapy session soliloquy in the pilot to understand what was so fascinating about a gangster trying to make it in at the end of the 20th century.

"What 'The Sopranos' was about is a guy at the turn of the century who wants to be Vito Corleone, but he believes everyone thinks he is Homer Simpson," Thompson says.

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The anti-hero role is as old as literature itself, but Gandolfini's performance made Tony Soprano a go-to touchstone for the anti-heroes that have followed since "The Sopranos" ended in 2007.

"{Tony] wasn't the first, but it was done so exquisitely. He was made so likeable, so human, one could empathize," Thompson says.

"A lot of times anti-heroes are not characters that we always want to root for when they're doing bad things, [Gandolfini] was different," says Weiner. "He had that charisma to draw you into his presence."

Gandolfini exuded so much charisma that he regularly landed on "Sexiest Men of the Year" lists – balding hair, bloating weight, sagging skin and all.

"We don't often get middle-aged fat guys as heroes," says Maurice Yacowar, author of "The Sopranos on the Couch: Analyzing TV's Greatest Series."

By being so likeable, Gandolfini, ironically, made Tony Soprano a more sinister character.

"We have to hate ourselves for liking Tony so much. We have to question our own moral foundations if we were sympathetic to this terrible immoral group of gangsters," Yacowar says.

Now anti-heroes like Soprano are the norm, moving from the Walter Whites and Dexter Morgans of cable to Olivia Pope on network TV.

"It's much more common to have an anti-hero than a hero," Thompson says.

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While the rest of "The Sopranos" cast was stellar, perhaps the most credit should go to creator David Chase for his pioneering vision and execution of television that feels like cinema.

"It was the first TV series that had such concentrated individual scenes and at the same time ran to an epic length," Yacowar says.

And it couldn't have pulled it off without the unforgettable performance of its leading man.

"James Gandolfini brought to the role his physical presence, his eyes, his expression, his personal biography – all of that made him so convincing as 'that guy,' living with that family, in 'that state' of New Jersey. There was never a moment where you thought, 'Ah, that moment didn't ring true,'" Thompson says.

Yacowar adds, "Tony Soprano was a magnificent literary creation, but Gandolfini fleshing him out raised it to another level."