The Fatness of James Gandolfini: Inspiring, Iconic, and Probably Fatal

I never met James Gandolfini. His work as Tony Soprano strikes me as a unique and staggering artistic achievement, but I am a non-expert fan, with no experience in acting or television. To my surprise, though, he is the first celebrity whose death has touched me in that way that celebrity deaths seem to touch people.

What’s happening, specifically, is that I am mourning him as a fat man. Gandolfini was an icon for a community that I am a part of. It’s tough to confirm his iconic status, because the community is not exactly one that people are jumping to claim allegiance to. Still, if I may use myself to generalize, fat people consume art through a fat lens, and through that lens there may be nobody who was more important on screen than James Gandolfini.

That makes his death, very much at the mercy of his fatness, painful. When I read the headline, the first thing I thought was, Man, I hope it was a plane crash.

For me, as a fat kid, watching The Sopranos was a triumphant experience, one that made me feel different as a person. Gandolfini, in that role, was sexy. His very explicit sex scenes—and there were many—were entirely believable, and sensing that was even more exciting to twelve-year-old me than the general pleasures of seeing breasts on TV. It made perfect sense that beautiful women would orbit around him. He felt desired and desirable, two feelings that I had never considered to be possibilities for myself.

I know there’s tons of problematic stuff to point out here. I know that the character’s mystique in the show came, in large part, from the fact that he was a dangerous, wealthy, manipulative sociopath who was verbally and occasionally physically abusive to women who often came to him needing something. I get that. I’m not trying to belittle it.

But what translated to me, and I know I’m not alone in this, was Gandolfini’s body and the way he handled it—the grace and confidence with which he operated. His bulk was a character in the show, and he embraced it without embarrassment. He could let it be a punchline when need be, then switch in an instant to its being something formidable or alluring. He moved with power, not shame.

He transformed the genre of fat-guy performance by playing into all of its tropes while simultaneously exploding them. Obituaries will likely describe Gandolfini as getting his start playing "heavies," a word whose double meaning can't be unintentional—the blunt, lumbering henchman. Tony Soprano, the big boss, fits that type, huge and terrifying. But Galdolfini made the heavy at times beautiful, at times sad. In other words, human.

So he hit the notes of the portly sitcom dad: waddling down the driveway to get the paper at some point in every episode, shoveling deli meats into his mouth in cutaway shots. But through all the slapstick, he delivered the first performance I ever saw where the funny fat guy wasn't only funny.

The nobility that he leant his fatness, the way he fashioned a career both in spite and because of it, leaves us with a tricky problem of how to understand his death. Let’s be honest, even if tomorrow an official report comes out of the hospital in Rome saying it wasn’t a heart attack, James Gandolfini died of obesity. What can you write about that?

Heath Ledger, another gifted actor gone too soon, brought with him an easy narrative to mourn, that of the addict. We know how to tell that one: the thin, pouty genius, whose gorgeousness suggested an artistic soul plagued by demons, that awful, meaningless word. Drug use mounted with his success—preying on his perceived sensitivity—till this outside force made him lose control and it killed him.

It's the story of Jim Morrison and River Phoenix and Bradley Nowell—and even of fat stars, like John Belushi and Chris Farley. When their too-large bodies died of overdoses, it allowed their deaths to be unquestionably tragic, and the comedy of their too-large bodies to remain comedy. It happened so quickly, and nothing could be done.

A person's mounting obesity isn't so easy to compartmentalize or make into a villain. We are unable to separate someone’s weight, no matter how dangerous or excessive, from their identity. And there are no interventions—beyond the Biggest Loser kind, reserved for powerless people who have brought themselves in front of the camera to be shamed back to life. For a man like Gandolfini, and for most of us, there are only uncomfortable jokes, or silence. It just feels different.

But why? The way that Hollywood party boys come to embody the vice we expect from them, so too did Gandolfini. In sad-watching as many Sopranos clips as possible, careening back and forth between all the seasons, I’ve been astounded by just how much fatter he got from the first season to the sixth. It must be a near-hundred-pound fluctuation, over the course of eight years. In front of everyone’s eyes, while giving Emmy acceptance speeches and starring in that shit movie with Brad Pitt. Self-destruction could not be more conspicuous. Needle tracks are, at least, hide-able with a sleeve.

The Sopranos even references this tragic course. In season four, there’s an episode where Tony organizes an intervention for Chris, his nephew, a junkie. It’s the perfect Sopranos mixture of poignancy and dark humor, and it culminates with Chris looking at Tony and saying, “I’m killing myself? With the way you eat, you’ll have a heart attack by fifty.” He’s then beaten for insubordination, because that is something you just cannot say.

No one mobilized to save James Gandolfini. His now very obvious march toward killing himself was met with responses befitting the same tropes that his acting had so beautifully moved beyond. We joked about Gandolfini-breathing, that lawnmower sound he began to take on in later seasons of The Sopranos, even though it was the sound of a body struggling to be alive. Or we looked at the combination of his girth and kindness and wrote about him being jolly, a gentle giant.

Gandolfini once said, in probably his most famous interview quote, “I’m a neurotic mess. I’m basically a 260-pound Woody Allen.” He later amended it to a “295 pound Woody Allen.” The quote was charming because of the perceived valley between Allen, small and frightened, and the characteristics that we associate with a 260-pound dude, gregarious, oblivious. But anybody who has been anywhere near 260 pounds knows that feeling like Woody Allen comes with the territory. Self-loathing, self-destruction, a fear of death that seems realer than your average —that’s what 260 pounds means.

How could Gandolfini not feel it? How could the psychic toll of being known for something that will soon hurt you not lead to a little neurosis? I’m not saying he was crying for help or that the quote wasn't hilarious, but from here, right now, it should also be remembered as heartbreaking.

How do we see fatness? It’s a question worth asking, nowhere close to being answerable, even with all those documentaries about the epidemic. Gandolfini embodied all of the emotional complexities of the way I have experienced my own fatness. There is the effort to not be ashamed, to claim some part of how I look and am as beautiful. And then there’s the danger in not feeling shame, in letting the fatness become how you’re identified.

And now, as I write this, there’s the taboo. I feel fear in publicly identifying myself as a fat guy, as though somehow people who know me and see me every day could be shocked. I feel guilt in identifying Gandolfini as a fat guy, let alone discussing his weight at length, even though his weight is captured on tape forever, even though it’s part of how he will be remembered, with every obituary trying to find the pleasantest possible adjectives—burly, stocky, barrel-chested, bear-like.

I’m not trying to reduce him. It feels ridiculous to talk about the negative repercussions of a truly gifted, maybe-self-accepting fat star, when the anti-fat vitriol of our celebrity culture is far more insidious. Still, he’s dead, and he died in a way that seems inevitable and preventable only now that it has happened.

Lucas Mann is the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.