It was quite a shock to hear last Thursday that James Gandolfini had died the day before, June 19th, in Italy of a heart attack — much too young at age 51. And then to learn a few days later that writer Richard Matheson had died on June 23rd was just too much. Matheson had a longer run — he was 87 — but it was no less of a jolt. Matheson’s death may have even reached a deeper place in me, because he’s been in my life since I first read his amazing, deeply unsettling horror novel, I Am Legend, in 1954, and had stayed with him throughout his long career in books, television, and feature films.
Both were born in New Jersey; Gandolfini in Westwood on September 18, 1961, and Matheson in Allendale on February 20, 1926. Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, NJ, where he went to high school. He received a BA in communications studies from Rutgers University in 1982, where he also worked as a bouncer at an on-campus bar, an interesting detail considering the types of tough-guy characters he frequently played during his career. He eventually became involved in acting while living in New York City. Richard Matheson was raised in Brooklyn. In 1943 he joined the army and was in the infantry during World War II. After the war he earned a BA in journalism at the University of Missouri in 1949, then moved to California in 1951.
Because of The Sopranos, Gandolfini will probably be identified now and forever with the character of Tony Soprano, and always have a strong connection to the state of New Jersey. The New York Daily News and the New York Post both referred to him as Tony Soprano in their headlines announcing his death. I’d seen him in supporting roles prior to The Sopranos, most notably in his fifth feature film as a mob soldier who dukes it out with Patricia Arquette in True Romance (1993), written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by the late Tony Scott. In that film he brought some dimension, different and quirky, to what could have been a standard character that we’ve seen many times before. But it was his portrayal of mob boss Tony Soprano that put James Gandolfini on the map, and helped make HBO the gold standard of television programming in the process.
I’d subscribed to HBO a few years earlier, mainly so I could see Garry Shandling’s brilliant series, The Larry Sanders Show, before it ended its run. So I was all set when The Sopranos made its debut on January 10, 1999. I’m not clear on this, but I don’t think I started watching it right away. I know I’d already seen Analyze This, a feature film that opened in March of ’99, with Robert De Niro as a mobster in analysis with Billy Crystal as his shrink. I was skeptical of The Sopranos‘ premise, thinking that this had already been done in Analyze This, and wondering where they could go with a series. Well, I found out, along with the rest of us who watched rabidly through eighty-six episodes and six seasons from 1999 to 2007, when it went off the air with one of the most famous and controversial series finales ever. Last Saturday, my wife and I started re-watching The Sopranos from the beginning. We’d burned through the first season by Wednesday night, and now it’s on to the second. The show is still great, maybe even greater. Even though other actors were considered for the part of Tony Soprano before James Gandolfini landed the role, it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else as that character.
The impact of The Sopranos, and the character of Tony Soprano in particular, has often overshadowed Gandolfini’s fine work in feature films. He brings a lot of heart and soul to the role of Winston (aka Lester), a gay hit man in The Mexican (2001), an otherwise rather lackluster film directed by Gore Verbinski, with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in the leads. The following clip features Roberts and Gandolfini as they talk in a coffee shop.
One of my favorite films of Gandolfini’s, both for his performance and the film itself, is the little-seen and underrated Lonely Hearts (2006), written and directed by Todd Robinson. The story of the true-life “Lonely Hearts Killers” had been filmed twice before, first as The Honeymoon Killers (1969) with Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoller, and then as Deep Crimson in 1996 by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. James Gandolfini and John Travolta co-star in Lonely Hearts as the two Long Island detectives who finally crack the case. There’s something sad and mournful about this noirish film. From what I could find, it grossed less than $200,000 in the U.S. and Canada, which hardly seems possible, and difficult to account for. How can any film make so little money? Believe me, Lonely Hearts is well worth seeing.
Other excellent James Gandolfini performances include playing Big Dave Tolliver in the The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), directed by the Coen Bros.; Where the Wild Things Are (2009), directed by Spike Jonze, in which Gandolfini beautifully brings to life the character of Carol, a lonely Wild Thing with anger-management issues; as C.I.A. director Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty (2012); and in Not Fade Away (2012) as the father of a boy trying to form a rock ‘n’ roll band in the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 60s Jersey, also the debut feature film written and directed by Sopranos creator, David Chase. In 2009 Gandolfini appeared on Broadway in the hit play, God of Carnage, for which he was nominated for an appropriately-named Tony Award. And then there’s this great clip from an appearance on Sesame Street.
There was a funeral service for James Gandolfini in New York City on Thursday, June 27 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine near Columbia University. Unfortunately I didn’t attend (no excuse, got up too late), but “Variety” has posted an account which quotes heartfelt remarks from David Chase. The New York Times obituary has more details about his life and career.
Last December I wrote about Richard Matheson in a post titled “Famous Monsters and Me — Part 2: Books and Comics” (which includes his first published story, “Born of Man and Woman,” a stunning debut). You can check out the full post, but here’s a segment:
“All of this material was filling up my head with crazy, wonderful stuff. I wasn’t aware of film directors then, but I knew the book authors, especially Richard Matheson. He has had a huge impact in the fields of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Matheson has written novels, short stories, film and television scripts. His work in television alone is astounding. He wrote 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the classic ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ with William Shatner going bonkers when he sees a demon on the wing. I doubt I’ve ever been on a flight and not thought of that episode, especially if I was seated over a wing. Matheson wrote the short story and script of Duel, the TV movie that helped put Stephen Spielberg on the map. He wrote The Night Stalker for TV, which gave us a hardcore vampire in the modern world, followed by The Night Strangler, which led to the series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. These are just a few examples of his work. Matheson is a giant. His fingerprints are everywhere. I can’t imagine the landscape without him.”
Stephen King has been quoted as saying that Richard Matheson is the author “who influenced me the most as a writer.” That’s quite a statement. Of all his work, Matheson’s I Am Legend, the book that caused my head to explode with possibilities, has cast possibly the longest shadow. One can’t overestimate its influence on genre writing and filmmaking. George Romero has said that I Am Legend, and the first film version of that novel, The Last Man on Earth (1964), were an inspiration for his 1968 epic, Night of the Living Dead, in itself a game changer that has spawned a staggering number of zombie films and books.
Matheson was incredibly prolific in the 1960s and early ’70s writing for films and television, as well as novels and short stories. He wrote several screenplays for Roger Corman’s series of films based (loosely) on works by Edgar Allan Poe, starting with House of Usher in 1960, followed by The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors, both in 1963. His television work, besides The Twilight Zone, includes episodes of Star Trek, Have Gun – Will Travel, Lawman, Combat!, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Steven Spielberg credits Richard Matheson for giving him his first real break by writing the story and screenplay of Duel (1971), a hugely important event in Spielberg’s career. Dennis Weaver plays a businessman driving through the desert who becomes increasingly unhinged as he’s pursued by a seemingly demonic truck that wants him dead. If this was a Stephen King story, the truck would quite literally be from Hell. We never see the driver; the truck takes on a life of its own. The situation is all the more terrifying and out of control because Weaver never knows why this is happening to him, and neither do we. The relentlessness of Duel is seen again in Spielberg’s Jaws and the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
Duel was originally shown on television as an ABC Movie of the Week. The running time of the TV version was 74 minutes. Spielberg subsequently shot new scenes to bring the running time to 90 minutes for theatrical distribution in Europe and Australia, which is the version you can see here.
There’s an interesting 1994 interview with Matheson from the New York Times. When asked what influenced his writing, he says, “When I first joined my local library, I read endlessly. I immediately headed for the fantasy section, fairy tales, you name it.” I identified strongly with this, as it mirrors my own early reading experiences. He’s also asked what influenced his novel The Shrinking Man, to which he replies, “I went to see a picture with Ray Milland and Aldo Ray, and in this one scene Milland in an angry mood leaves his apartment and mistakenly picks up Aldo Ray’s hat. The hat went way down over his ears, and my immediate thought was what if a guy put on his own hat and that happened.” I love that. It’s great to get a sense of how his mind worked.
Matheson’s obituary in the New York Times refers to him in the title as a “Writer of Haunted Science Fiction and Horror.” That’s accurate enough, but his value to me in my formative years, and still today, goes way beyond that. We’ll always have his work to experience and re-experience, as well as that of James Gandolfini. Thank God for that, but the loss still hurts. I knew neither one of these guys personally, but it sure feels like I did. – Ted Hicks