Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Without James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, there would be no Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, Walter White or Dexter Morgan. And maybe even no Don Draper.
Those characters, flawed antiheroes all, followed in the wake of HBO's groundbreaking The Sopranos, which made a man who has done reprehensible things palatable to a big cable-TV audience.
In the wake of that show's record audience for the pay-cable network during its run from 1999 to 2007, which has yet to be broken, a spate of similarly flawed characters quickly followed, though none were murderous mafiosos.
You had Mackey, Michael Chiklis' corrupt cop on FX's first original drama The Shield, followed two years later by Gavin, Denis Leary's addled alcoholic firefighter on that network's Rescue Me. Later came Showtime's serial killer Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall) and schoolteacher-turned-meth-dealer White (Bryan Cranston) on AMC's Breaking Bad, wrapping up its final season this summer, and Draper (Jon Hamm), the increasingly dour, philandering adman on Mad Men, created by former Sopranos writer Matt Weiner.
Each of those actors has won accolades for their roles, but it was Gandolfini who unmistakably "brought to life a new kind of character, something we hadn't seen much on TV," says TV historian Tim Brooks. "Creative people have always been fascinated by flawed characters - Shakespeare was too - but TV was not very good at doing that," he says, favoring lighter dramas about detectives, doctors or lawyers who saved the day.
"It was hard to keep the audience coming back week after week to someone who was doing bad things," Brooks says. "The basic rule of a TV leading character was someone you'd be comfortable having in the sanctity of your own home." Even All in the Family's racist Archie Bunker was, at heart, a "teddy bear" underneath, Brooks says.
But Gandolfini turned a murderous thug, who strangled a turncoat while on a trip to visit a college with his daughter, into a somehow relatable guy. "He revolutionized television, and really brought in a whole new type of protagonist, a certain kind of conflicted, sociopathic antihero," says Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media. He was a hulking, super-masculine presence and a killer who had problems with his family and especially his domineering mother, Livia. "There were so many antiheroes that followed, and he was the template for that."
"He made him into a real person, and there was enough humanity in him that it constantly surprised you and impressed you," Brooks says. Even co-star Edie Falco acknowledged it Thursday in a remembrance that revealed, "The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I've ever known."
It also impressed the big broadcast networks: Then-NBC president Bob Wright, obviously frustrated by HBO's boundary-pushing latitude and its use of violence, language and sexual content, sent a widely circulated letter in 2001 to his executives and others in Hollywood asking how the show "impacts mainstream entertainment and NBC in particular.''
Big networks still faced difficulty embracing that goal while seeking a mass advertiser-friendly audience. But in recent years that has changed. Fox's The Following, another serial-killer drama starring Kevin Bacon, was last season's top newcomer among young-adult viewers, and this fall NBC has high hopes for The Blacklist, starring James Spader as a leering, most-wanted fugitive who mysteriously offers to help the FBI track a terrorist.