Playing Tony Soprano for years 'amplified' James Gandolfini's personal struggles, according to a former HBO executive

·3 min read
Tony Soprano (left) and James Gandolfini (right)
James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano for six seasons.HBO; Angela Weiss/Getty Images
  • Former HBO CEO Chris Albrecht says playing Tony Soprano "amplified" James Gandolfini's struggles.

  • In "Tinderbox," former network executives and costars reflected on Gandolfini's substance use.

  • "In order for him to become Tony, he had to connect with his darkest side," Albrecht said.

James Gandolfini's personal struggles were "amplified" by his role as Tony on "The Sopranos," according to one former HBO executive.

In "Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers," journalist James Andrew Miller conducted hundreds of interviews, including with Chris Albrecht, former CEO of the network, and Terence Winter, a writer and producer on "The Sopranos."

"Tony's struggles not only mirrored Jimmy's struggles, they amplified Jimmy's struggles and what Jimmy felt," Albrecht told Miller.

"In order to become Tony, he had to connect with his darkest side," Albrecht said of Gandolfini. "The cost for him of playing Tony was beyond what just being an actor would be. To do it was for him to connect with his own demons."

Winter recalled Gandolfini telling him he was "exhausted" by the role.

"He lived in the Tony Soprano headspace but James Gandolfini was not Tony Soprano," Winter said. "James was a kind and funny person but Tony got into his head and lived there for nine months. That was exhausting in a lot of different ways."

And Gandolfini's struggles with the role were evident to his costar, Edie Falco, who played Tony's wife Carmela on "The Sopranos."

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano on season one of "The Sopranos."
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano on season one of "The Sopranos."HBO

"I had a conversation with Jim once where he was in very bad shape," Falco told Miller. "He said to me, 'They don't understand what this does to me, doing this show and where I have to go.'"

According to the "Nurse Jackie" actress, Gandolfini was aware that there were "tons of people of people" working on the show "who depended on him for their job" — several interviews in "Tinderbox" make clear that none of the executives or creators involved with the show believed it would survive if Gandolfini exited. But she told the actor should he take care of himself first.

"I tried to make it clear that this really is about, it's life and death and it's about taking care of yourself," Falco said.

For his role as Tony on the show (which aired from 1999 to 2007), Gandolfini won a Golden Globe and three Primetime Emmys, among other awards. The actor died in 2013, at the age of 51.

Elsewhere in "Tinderbox," former executives revealed that they were "concerned" about Gandolfini staying alive due to his struggles with substance abuse — and that they'd even staged a failed intervention at Albrecht's New York apartment.

"We were concerned about Gandolfini staying alive. Occasionally he would go on a bender or a coke binge. We had to stop production," former HBO CEO Jeff Bewkes told Miller.

"It cost a lot of money and was hard on the other actors' schedules," he continued, adding that he "didn't pressure" Albrecht about Gandolfini missing work because he "thought Jimmy was embarrassed."

Albrecht called the network's relationship to Gandolfini a "love-hate thing," and spoke about the disastrous intervention with the actor.

"We had an intervention with him in my apartment in New York. The intervention wasn't my idea. I think his family's idea because his sister was there. It was definitely a crisis situation," Albrecht recalled.

"Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers" is currently on sale now.

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