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Missing Tony Soprano

Over the course of its six groundbreaking seasons on HBO, we discussed every aspect of The Sopranos with friends and family—except for actor James Gandolfini's size.
Still from The Sopranos. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF HBO)

Still from The Sopranos. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF HBO)

It was over 12 years ago that I first met Tony Soprano. His fictional character, fine-tuned by the voluminous actor James Gandolfini, became familiar in our home, someone we wondered and cared about. The television mob boss was problematic, for sure, but human. In the first season, we witnessed Tony’s panic attack, his decision to see a shrink, his fantasies, his pill-gulping at the bathroom mirror. He was a pathological charmer. We hummed the show’s theme song, "Woke Up This Morning," as we went about our daily business.

Today, upon news of the actor’s premature death at age 51, it’s hard not to wonder why we didn’t focus more on Tony’s weight. Despite so many talking-head conversation about the award-winning program and the protagonist’s issues, and the nearly infinite takes on the normalcy, or not, of Tony’s relationship with his leggy psychiatrist, and borderline academic analyses of his psychiatric diagnosis, how rarely did we consider his girth?

Tony’s buddies, cohorts in crime, respected and feared him. They wouldn’t tell the big man to eat less, to diet, or to get a scale and step on it.

Tony’s belly stood out over six seasons. He ate so much, right before our eyes. But comments were few. His invented neighbor and sometimes physician, Dr. Bruce Cusamano, had his reasons never to dare say a word. Tony’s buddies, cohorts in crime, respected and feared him. They wouldn’t tell the big man to eat less, to diet, or to get a scale and step on it.

We in the audience, too, seemed not to mind or even worry about the heavy actor’s weight. In my friends’ conversations about the show, it was all about Tony’s issues with his psychiatrist, and his relationship with his wife Carmela, and whether he was beyond forgivable after the Season 5 killing of the beautiful, torn, and addicted Adriana. It was about psychological stuff, and loyalty, friends, and family.

So we didn’t fixate on Tony’s heaviness, or at least we didn’t give him too much grief about it. Perhaps that’s simply because Tony Soprano wasn’t real. But the man behind him, James Gandolfini, was indeed, and he died yesterday in Rome, too young.

One year ago, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new recommendations for physicians on obesity and counseling. In published guidelines, the panel recommended that doctors routinely screen patients and, if appropriate, recommend counseling for weight loss. The group noted that obesity affects over 30 percent of adult men and women. Prior studies have shown that most doctors, including primary care physicians, fail to address their patients’ eating habits and weight problems.

In families, the weight subject strains relationships. It’s hard to tell a loved one that they need to shape up. Sometimes, even, we don’t see it in those to whom we’re closest. On the TV show, when someone made a joke about the large backside of Johnny Sack’s wife, the consequences were heavy. But Tony’s form was treated sparingly, even delicately, by most who knew him.

Few of us who watched the final, screen-darkening episode of The Sopranos could have predicted this sudden and unfortunate, early ending of the actor’s life. An HBO spokesperson said Gandolfini may have had a heart attack, a once-common cause of death in middle-age men in North America. It’s too early to know, and it may not be the point. Whatever happened to the actor, many of us are affected by this sad news.

Now, we might remember a fictional man’s cravings and imperfections, and—with the kind of affection we might offer a loved one, a patient or a friend—we might talk about Tony’s weight.