I love doing the column from Europe because your clock is way ahead of everyone in the States (especially L.A. — nine hours!). But I was asleep five or six hours ago when the biggest nuclear explosion to hit the movie and acting realm in many a moon — the sudden death of James Gandolfini, 51, in Rome — was first reported. I woke up at 5:30 am and saw the news…the fuck? WHAT? Okay, I wasn’t 100% surprised (and I’ve already been warned on Twitter to stay away from this line of thinking) but for me this is almost on the level of John Lennon‘s death in terms of its shock and untimeliness. I feel devastated. Thank God for Gandolfini’s brilliance in David Chase‘s The Sopranos and the way he conveyed those feelings of being trapped and haunted and terrified by that sense of being surrounded by goblins…he was our Hamlet, our Macbeth, our James Tyrone. Thank God I have all of that on Bluray to have and to hold.

For Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is (forgive the hyperbole) so epic, so much of a legendary figure in the American saga of the late 20th Century (loss, lament, corruption) and such a titanic figure in the lore of the anxious, conflicted, canoli-eating New Jersey Italian (which I know a lot about, coming from a middle-class New Jersey suburb as I do and having known a lot of defensive guineas in high school) and who was basically the guy whose face and manner and emotional undercurrents expressed so completely and profoundly what it was like to slog through the terror and frustrations and anxieties of being a flawed, besieged middle-aged parent just before 9/11 and in the five or six years that followed…Gandolfini was the whole ball of wax to me.

I knew Gandolfini so well, I felt, but I never said a word to the guy (even during that smallish Not Fade Away party we both attended last fall in the hills above Laurel Canyon) and never dared to take a photo of him. I learned a long time ago to always be careful and never cross certain lines with large New Jersey Italians. Never poke at them, show respect and never convey the kind of snide WASPy attitude that I could dispense at the drop of a hat…watch that shit, put it away, bury it.

Gandolfini knew from anger. As one who has fed at the trough of my own anger for decades, I don’t believe he ever lost that basic fuel for his Tony arias. But he was mainly a sensitive X-factor guy, I felt. Rivers of sadness and aloneness within. He spoke with such elegance (I loved his natural voice, which was deeper and more relaxed and contemplative than that crude, higher-pitched, almost whiny-assed Tony voice) and seemed so perceptive and gentle and (from what I’ve been told by friends and colleagues) so gracious and kind.

I’ll bet that if you had asked JG where he’d like to be when the end comes, he would have said northern New Jersey, New York or somewhere in Italy. I’ll bet that was one of his last thoughts apart from the standard “holy shit…really? I’m going now?” stuff. I’ll bet he said to himself, “Well, at least I’m in Italy…not a bad place to check out. Fitting, I mean.”

My two…make that three favorite Gandolfini performances apart from Mr. Soprano are (a) his hilarious turn as Lt. General George Miller in In The Loop, (b) his Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty (“How is the food in this place anyway?…and no fucking bullshit….is he there or is he not fucking there?”) and (c) the blue-collarish, henpecked husband in the original B’way stage version of God of Carnage, which I saw in ’09 or thereabouts. (Gandolfini briefly lost his place during the performance I saw and began to say a line at the wrong moment. He caught himself and moved on like a pro.) And I liked him to varying degrees in True Romance, Get Shorty, Crimson Tide, Killing Them Softly, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Mexican, The Last Castle…on and on and on.

Gandolfini’s final film will reportedly be in Animal Rescue, a crime drama costarring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and directed by Michael Roskam.

From a riff on Gandolfini’s In The Loop guy, written by MCN’s Noah Forrest:

Gandolfini is “playing an Army General who is serious about trying to stop this war at all costs and even more serious about his job. He’s a man who is put in a dicey predicament, the only man in the film who actually knows the real cost of war. And he’s reluctant to sign based on false pretenses that might involve a lot of troops being killed. But he’s also sharp as hell and quick-witted, and Gandolfini smiles just enough to bring the right amount of levity to the proceedings.

“Basically Gandolfini’s character is supposed to be the Colin Powell of the story, a good man in an untenable situation. Except in this case, he’s got a wicked and dry sense of humor. There’s a scene that Gandolfini and Peter Capaldi share, [with] so many wonderful insults thrown back and forth that I couldn’t stop myself from smiling the whole time.”