‘The Sopranos’: James Gandolfini Made Tony More Ruthless Than Initially Planned

The Sopranos has been off the air for more than a decade, but it still comes up in conversations about great television. Ahead of its time in terms of complexity, The Sopranos was among the television programming that helped usher in a new era of binge-worthy series filled with suspense, drama, and intricate plots.

Beloved for its gritty storytelling and the amazing mix of characters portrayed, The Sopranos will go down in history as one of TV’s best. A large part of what makes the series so memorable is James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano, and Gandolfini should get the credit for transforming this iconic character into the ruthless protagonist that fans appreciate so much. 

‘The Sopranos’ broke the TV drama mold

HBO has long been known as a network where experimental television projects get the opportunity to shine, and The Sopranos is a large part of that glowing reputation. In fact, many credit the series with changing the face of television programming entirely.

As BBC America explainsThe Sopranos helped usher in the golden age of television many believe we are now experiencing. The show’s groundbreaking approach transformed what audiences expected out of their television programming, and the rest of the industry creators scrambled to deliver and expand on them. 

One way that the show broke the mold was in its budget. HBO invested heavily in the show, and big-budget productions like Game of Thrones and Westworld followed in its footsteps. It also elevated television’s status. With gritty, dark storylines that could rival any film for seriousness and heft, The Sopranos offered a glimpse of what television could be if given the chance.

Along with that appreciation came more recognition for show creators. Films have always had big names like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers, and The Sopranos led the way for television to create these kinds of recognizable names as well. In short, The Sopranos helped define television as an art form rather than simply a way to pass the time.

Tony Soprano was a major force for the show’s success

James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini | Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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Much of the praise for the show centers on the portrayal of the protagonist, Tony Soprano. This character helped usher in a wave of antiheroes, conflicted individuals who were deeply — often unforgivably — flawed but who also highlighted something poignant about the human condition and what it means to try to survive.

Without Tony Soprano on the screen, the world may never have met characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White or Mad Men‘s Don Draper. 

Psychology Today article about Tony Soprano’s deep unhappiness uses a quote from the character that sums him up well: “I got the world by the balls and yet I can’t stop feeling that I am a loser.”

Tony captures the essence of frustration with what it is to be human, to constantly strive for something more and feel like you’ve come up short no matter how much you achieve. Viewers can’t help but feel some sympathy for the man — even as they are horrified by his actions. It’s this tension between right and wrong, hope and despair that makes the show great. 

James Gandolfini brought Tony to life 

Tony Soprano was masterfully portrayed by the late James Gandolfini. Today, the portrayal is iconic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

However, Gandolfini almost blew the audition. Gandolfini, who didn’t have much confidence in landing the role and thought it would go to a more conventionally handsome actor, actually walked out in the middle of his audition and vanished. It wasn’t until a later audition at show creator David Chase’s house that Gandolfini eventually got the part. 

It’s a good thing for fans that Chase gave Gandolfini a second chance because it was the actor’s instincts and personification of Tony that brought the character to life on the screen. According to Mental Floss, the initial character wasn’t written to be such a tough guy.

Gandolfini riffed off of the written role to create a much darker, ruthless character. Without that kind of transformative performance, there’s no way of knowing if The Sopranos would have had the same punch that it ultimately did.