Tony Soprano character altered face of TV, paving way for antiheroes

When "The Sopranos" hit the small screen in 1999, there wasn't a leading character on television to compare to troubled patriarch Tony Soprano. Sure, the big screen had long since made room for complex antiheroes. Heck, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood crafted careers by bringing those types to life. But TV is different.

Image: Michael C. Hall as Dexter on "Dexter," Bryan Cranston as Walter White on "Breaking Bad," and Jon Hamm as Don Draper on "Mad Men." Showtime / AMC
Michael C. Hall as Dexter on "Dexter," Bryan Cranston as Walter White on "Breaking Bad," and Jon Hamm as Don Draper on "Mad Men."

Viewers develop long-term relationships with the familiar faces on weekly dramas. Audiences were used to cheering for the good guys they knew and loved and waiting for the baddies to finally get what was coming to them. So why would they tune in to see a lead like Tony Soprano?

Because of an actor like James Gandolfini.

It would have been easy to play Tony bigger than life -- he was a bigger than life character. He was equal parts tough guy, wise guy, ruthless killer and devoted father, flawed husband and struggling soul. That's what made him a tough sell. But Gandolfini somehow balanced the exaggeration that was inherent to the world of a crime boss with the mundane, everyman existence behind it. Sure, he cracked open a few heads, but he also fed the ducks that called his pool home. He was quick on the trigger, but he was also a hit around the barbecue.

"The decent part of Tony, the part that stood in for the tragically wasted human potential Dr. Melfi kept trying to tease out and embrace, came from Gandolfini," New York Magazine writer Matt Zoller Seitz wrote shortly after the actor's death. "His humanity shone through Tony's rotten fa├žade. When people said they sensed good in Tony, it was Gandolfini they sensed."

Gandolfini made Tony real. He made the unlikable, likable.

"I once asked ('Sopranos' creator) David Chase what did it (mean) to find Gandolfini, and he looked at me as though I was crazy," GQ writer and author of "Difficult Men" Brett Martin told TODAY. "He said, 'It meant everything.' What he brought to that role, the depth and the humanity and the kind of soulfulness, as well as the ugliness and the anger. It changed television forever, really."

Gandolfini's appealing portrayal of a gritty, unappealing guy ushered in the era of the modern TV antihero. The bad guys, the morally ambiguous guys, the not-your-typical-leading-man guys -- their time had finally come.

Which means there are plenty of actors who owe a debt of gratitude to Gandolfini. If viewers hadn't connected to his portrayal of Tony Soprano, would they have even had the chance to connect to Michael C. Hall's portrayal of Dexter Morgan in "Dexter"? The serial killer with a moral compass may seem miles away from the mobster, but both characters possess a strong sense of right and wrong, as well as a taste for bloody business. Tony came first. He was the test. In passing the test, Gandolfini made way for Hall and many others.

Jon Hamm's downward spiral as Don Draper on "Mad Men" is often Tony-esque, especially in the way he can hop from his mistress's arms to his marital bed without a moment's regret. Bryan Cranston's far darker descent as Walter White on "Breaking Bad" sees a basically good -- or at-one-time good -- man find a way to justify death and destruction, just as Tony did again and again. And Michael Chiklis' brutal-with-cause Vic Mackey on "The Shield" shared Tony's satisfaction in "convincing" an enemy to divulge hidden information.

They all benefitted from the ground Gandolfini broke -- as do audiences, who get to enjoy some of the most complex characters to ever grace the small screen.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Image: James Gandolfini

    James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

    The award-winning actor made even brutal mob boss Tony Soprano seem likable, but that was far from his only role.

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    He's the boss -

    James Gandolfini rose to fame as mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO's hit drama "The Sopranos," which ran from 1999 to 2007. He passed away on June 19.

    Michael Imperioli played his wife's cousin and Tony's own protege, Christopher Moltisanti. Gandolfini's character paved the way for other antiheroes to come, including "Breaking Bad's" Walter White, "Dexter's" Dexter Morgan and "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, to name a few. All are highly flawed, but beloved by viewers.
    Barry Wetcher / AP
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    Family time -

    The actor attended the opening night of Cirque du Soleil's "Banana Shpeel" at the Beacon Theatre on May 19, 2010 in New York with his wife Deborah and son Michael. The teenager was the one who discovered Gandolfini collapsed in their hotel bathroom.
    Bobby Bank / WireImage
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    Supporting the troops -

    Gandolfini attended the New York premiere of HBO's documentary film "Which Way Is The Frontline From Here?" on April 10, 2013. The film follows the work of photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya. Gandolfini himself produced two documentaries examining the difficulties facing America's soldiers and Marines.
    Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images
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    'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' -

    As the wealthy owner of Bally's Casino, Gandolfini was very much in charge of the wacky magicians (including Steve Carell) who want to perform in his establishment in 2013's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." Reportedly, the actor traveled to Las Vegas to research his role.
    New Line Cinema
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    A few words -

    Gandolfini spoke onstage at the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Awards at Crimson on Jan. 7, 2013, in New York.
    Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images
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    'Not Fade Away' -

    Gandolfini teamed up with "Sopranos" creator David Chase again for the 2012 film "Not Fade Away," in which he played, Pat, an Italian immigrant who was father to a young Italian-American with dreams of becoming a rock star in 1960s New Jersey.
    AP
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    'Zero Dark Thirty' -

    Though Gandolfini's character was named as only "CIA director" in the 2012 Oscar-nominated film, presumably he was playing Leon Panetta, who was in charge of the agency when Osama Bin Laden was killed, which was the subject of the film.
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    'Killing Them Softly' -

    Gandolfini starred alongside Brad Pitt as hitman Mickey Fallon in the 2012 crime film "Killing Them Softly."
    Melinda Sue Gordon / AP
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    'Welcome to the Rileys' -

    Gandolfini played Doug Riley, a father grieving the death of his daughter in the 2010 film "Welcome to the Rileys." Kristen Stewart played a 16-year-old stripper named Mallory with whom Doug moves in while he tries to put himself back together.
    AP
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    'God of Carnage' -

    James Gandolfini starred with Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway in "God of Carnage" in 2009. The role earned the actor a Tony nomination.
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    'Where the Wild Things Are' -

    Gandolfini has always been bigger than life, and in the 2009 adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" it was even more true -- despite the fact that he never appeared in person on screen. Gandolfini voiced the head Wild Thing, named Carol (pictured with actor Max Records, who played Max).
    Warner Bros. Pictures
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    'Surviving Christmas' -

    In 2004's "Surviving Christmas," Gandolfini played a suburban father who clobbers Ben Affleck him with a shovel, but ends up having him over for the holiday.
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    'The Man Who Wasn't There' -

    In 2001's neo-noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," Gandolfini (pictured with Katherine Borowitz) played "Big Dave" Brewster, a braggart who claims to have served in WWII's Pacific Theatre.
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    'The Mexican' -

    In the 2001 comedy "The Mexican," Gandolfini played a sensitive, gay hitman who made it his business to protect Julia Roberts' Samantha.
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    Golden night -

    Gandolfini won the Emmy for best lead actor in a drama series in 2000 for his role as Tony Soprano, an honor he would claim two more times. The actor also won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actor and three SAG awards for outstanding performance by a male actor, among many more honors.
    Scott Nelson / AFP/Getty Images
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    Mobster men -

    Tony Sirico (as Paulie), Michael Imperioli (as Christopher) and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) starred as mob men who did the bidding of boss Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) in the HBO drama "The Sopranos."
    Barry Wetcher / HBO
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