I grew up in Long Island, New York, among a broad swath of Irish, Italian, and Jewish families, many of whom emigrated out of the deeply ethnic ghettos of New York City. And not “The City” of Sex and the City and the like, but the New York of Brooklyn and The Bronx and Staten Island.
My stepfather was one of those guys, a tough Jewish kid with a big nose who literally bludgeoned his way out of the sweltering hell of The Bronx, escaping his own brutal father, a butcher, and into the relative luxury of the Navy, lying about his age to enter the military at the tail end of the Second World War. If not for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my step father would have bludgeoned his way into Japan from the tail gun of a naval fighter.
Something I’ve never written about before is how much James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano reminds me of my stepfather at times. It’s the little things. The raise of an eyebrow, a thick guttural roll to an expression, the sarcastic and dark twinkle behind a joke that could well be anything but, the dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows that always seem to sigh, “So what do you want from me?”
Of course, Tony Soprano is a fictional character, a mob boss who lives in a big house with his family of four in North Jersey, while my stepfather fell into a frustrated yet largely successful half-century as an accountant. But that Gandolfini can convey such a range of emotions, usually without words — especially now, in this sixth season of The Sopranos, coming back from a near fatal gut shot wound — is testimony to some of the finest acting I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m reminded of a scene in the pilot episode, when Tony discovers that his cousin Christopher (always played with powerhouse charisma by Michael Imperioli) is toying around with leaving the “family business” to write screenplays about the mob life. Enraged, Tony charges toward the camera and Christopher, a bull with hysterical energy and frightful purpose. At the last moment he pulls back, however, and extends a gaping paw and playfully taps Christopher’s cheek, his face now bright and cheerful, the face of the man you know you’re always going to follow because there’s no other way and no other choice.