James Gandolfini's Jewish Links: Shrinks, Gangsters and Maurice Sendak

With the roles he played and the lines he said, the career of James Gandolfini, who passed away in Italy aged 51, often intersected with the Jewish world.

Italian-American actor James Gandolfini (1961-2013), while not Jewish, showed a deep affinity with Jews. His most iconic role, Tony Soprano, in the award-winning mafia TV series “The Sopranos,” was engaged in a very Jewish business. There were many Jewish gangsters and criminals both in film and reality. These included crime czar Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) – a fictional character, based heavily on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky.

One of Tony’s closest confidants was Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, a retired music industry producer who knew Tony’s late father. Tony often relied on Hesh for advice (and occasionally money) and, in return, he was one of the few characters not to meet an untimely death.

Brutal but fragile, Tony struggled with the emotional demands of being the head of a family, in both senses of that term. Consequently, he attended regular sessions with a psychoanalyst. Although he chooses another Italian-American, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), as his therapist, he is very aware of the profession’s Jewish provenance. As his disgusted mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) bluntly put it, “Everybody knows that it's a racket for the Jews.”

Tony's daughter, Meadow, was played by a Jewish actress (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). When Meadow begins to date a fellow student at Columbia University, who is half-black and half-Jewish, Tony has much to say about it, but expresses no annoyance at his Jewishness.

Outside of “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini played Tony Baldessari in Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992), a police drama that unravels within New York City's Hasidic community. He teamed up with the Jewish director again in 1996 for “Night Falls on Manhattan.” In between those two films he appeared in Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” (1995).

But perhaps his most Jewish role came in Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic illustrated children's story. Gandolfini played Carol, one of the titular characters dreamed up by the Max (Max Records), a disobedient little boy with a vivid imagination who is sent to bed without his supper. Max constructs a fictional world in a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures that crown Max as their ruler.

While there is no explicit Jewishness in the film (or the book for that matter), the film plays out like an existential New York drama undertones of a Woody Allen flick. Indeed, the inspiration for Sendak’s characters was his elderly Jewish Yiddish-speaking relatives who uttered phrases like “vilda chaya” (wild animal). 

AP
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