Friends and admirers of James Gandolfini, an acting icon who portrayed legendary mob boss Tony Soprano, rushed (as well they should have) to praise Gandolfini's talent and generosity after the actor's death.
But a man's dying prematurely in front of his 13-year-old son, while also leaving fatherless an 8-month-old daughter, requires a psychological autopsy.
The last episode of "The Sopranos" featured Tony waiting at his favorite diner – presumably to be killed by gunmen.
James Gandolfini died in Italy of a heart attack at age 51 on Friday.
Fifty-one is quite an early age to be stricken with a fatal myocardial infarction. The New York Post reported that just before succumbing to his heart attack, Gandolfini had had eight drinks and a glutenous meal – an account disputed by Gandolfini's family and friends.
However, at the time of Gandolfini's death, GQ Magazine had in press an article entitled "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared" that detailed Gandolfini's emotional distress:
Gandolfini's troubles with drugs & alcohol, and his violent outbursts on set:
"In papers related to a divorce filing at the end of 2002, Gandolfini's wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration. To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera – he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head – it was a plausible scenario."
Gandolfini's difficulty dealing with fame:
Gandolfini, at 6 feet tall, upwards of 250 pounds, couldn't hide. He had become a recognizable face and figure. And the fame had begun to take a toll, says the piece.
"By the winter of 2002, Gandolfini's sudden refusals to work had become a semiregular occurrence. His fits were passive-aggressive: He would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his TriBeCa apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused – akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime – that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. "All of a sudden there'd be a sushi chef at lunch," one crew member remembered. "Or we'd all get massages." It had come to be understood by all involved as part of the price of doing business, the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolfini offered."
We all know that overweight and overuse of medications and drugs or alcohol (if this was in fact true for Gandolfini) are risk factors for a heart attack.
But Gandofini's reported stressed reaction to his work and fame requires perhaps greater explanation. Gandolfini was the son of immigrant, blue-collar workers who himself might have seem destined for a similar social position in life – except that, after attending Rutgers University, he went into acting and became famous. Gandolfini often described, in his characteristically modest "how-did-this-happen-to-me" style, that he couldn't believe he was selected for the career-making role of Tony, which he thought surely some "leading-man" type would be picked to play.
Gandolfini was wrong about that – and the rest is television and entertainment history. But that kind of psychological reality is hard to defeat. When someone rises so far and so quickly in terms of public acclaim, their psyches often lag behind. As a psychologist, I see such doubt reflected in Gandolfini's self-abuse, both literally when he forgot his lines, and indirectly through his binge eating and substance abuse. Likewise, removing himself from the set is an indication that, simply put, he didn't fully believe that he belonged there.
It's hard to accept a negative psychological portrait of a revered actor who, moreover, seemed like a very nice man. But when someone dies at age 51, we can benefit from a psychological autopsy that helps us to understand how such a talented person's life was cut short while he experienced so much pain and created such pain for others.
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Post Script: Colleague Paul Roman contacted me to note his publication of a paper (with Terry Blum) about the relationship of addiction to achieving social stardom, a discussion that led me to identify the following risk factors which seemed to be operating in Gandolfini's case, but not with the superstars noted below. That is, I don't think superstars are typically more prone to addiction than average people from their backgrounds, or than they are to lesser stars.
1. Absence of previous displays of outstanding ability that prepare a person to receive acclaim as an adult. LeBron James is one example of a superstar whose exceptional athletic prowess was noted well before he became the leading player in professional basketball, and thus gradated his climb to superstardom. Gandolfini had nothing comparable.
2. Absence of family/social-class experiences to prepare a person for assuming superstardom. George Clooney, who made his own way from television stardom in an ensemble cast in the TV series ER to movie superstardom, was the son of a television newscaster and nephew of a prominent show business personality (singer Rosemary Clooney), and so had some idea of what it meant to be a media/entertainment superstar – which Gandolfini did not.
3. Absence of appearance and manner of a person born to receive favor and attention. Brad Pitt is perhaps one example of a Hollywood superstar who – if not bred to assume such a position – is so obviously appealing and attractive that it wasn't incongruous for him to become a Hollywood idol. Gandolfini, by his own description, was bred to be a character actor – a harder gift for people to notice earlier in life.
In re 2, ironically, Gandolfini was a rare success story in the United States, which has the least social mobility of virtually any Western nation. "A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints. Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth."