James Gandolfini, the acclaimed actor who died on Wednesday at the age of 51, may have more fully embodied the role of Tony Soprano than any other actor ever captured any character. The Sopranos is among America’s most influential television shows, and it’s impossible to imagine the show without Gandolfini at its core.
But Gandolfini was also a great football fan who loved the Jets and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers coach who was at Rutgers when Gandolfini rose to stardom on The Sopranos, praised Gandolfini for using his fame to help attract attention to the Rutgers football program.
“I am sad to hear of the passing of Jim Gandolfini,” Schiano said. “He was a great supporter of Rutgers Football long before it was fashionable to be so. His generosity in helping us lent relevance to our football program at a time when it was desperately needed. In addition to his acting acclaim, he will be remembered by all Rutgers people as a compassionate alum and a great New Jerseyian.”
Gandolfini spent many of his autumn Sundays attending Jets games, and former Jets coach Eric Mangini appeared in one episode, with Tony seeing “the Mangenius” out at dinner and deciding to go say hello. The Jets released a statement saying, “We’re deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our friend James Gandolfini. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family & friends.”
His New Jersey mob boss character Tony Soprano liked football, too, although that was in large part because he profited from bookmaking. When episodes of The Sopranos featured characters watching football, HBO had to show Canadian football because there was no way the NFL was going to license its game footage as part of a mobster’s gambling activities.
Those clips of Tony Soprano watching the CFL were a rare few inauthentic aspects of a great television show. The man who made that show work will be missed.