The passing of actor James Gandolfini on Wednesday was as widely covered as any recent news event, which brought surprise to many people, but for those in the sports business the resonance of “The Sopranos” and its lead actor from Westwood, New Jersey was felt way beyond the end of the HBO series.
The ironic thing about the ties between the series and sport were not overt. Even though gambling was a plot line, there were very few appearances by athletes or even references to live sporting events. A sports book held little or no significance in the world of the North Jersey crime family. Compared to other series which were held with great interest in sport… “Entourage” for example…the use of cameos by athletes in “The Sopranos” to draw a little extra star power was almost nil. The one exception was then Jets coach Eric Mangini, whose brief appearance, with the help of the green and white, spawned his new nickname “Mangenius” and helped elevate the quiet Jets leader to cult figure status. Granted there was lots of talk about high school football, Tony’s past athletic exploits, and an occasional game on in the background as well as a share of degenerate gamblers, but sports rarely plaid out in the episodes despite the show having a cult-like following in the sports world. Rarely was there a stadium that didn’t find a way to mix in the show thee song or license a video segment or two for it’s in arena entertainment. The Cincinnati Reds Todd Frazier, a Toms River native even used “The Sopranos” theme song as his walk up music from time to time.
In the end, Gandolfini himself was not a huge sports fan, but he did play some key roles in the sports business world. He narrated a series of films on the Giants for NFL Films; he assisted, albeit with some backlash from some media and academics, with some recruiting and promotions for his alma mater Rutgers, and perhaps most famously lent himself to help the Knicks recruit LeBron James. He made an appearance at a game here and there, but in the end it was more about the acting than all the trappings for the 51 year old actor.
Bow the same is not to be said about the halo effect that being a Sopranos cast member has had in the sports world. Vincent Pastore and Steve Schirrippa, for example, became regulars at sports events as celebrities and guest speakers, in a good part off their roles on the show. The great character actor Dominic Chianese, once best known as Johnny Ola in “The Godfather,’ got a chance to live out another dream by becoming a very sought after National Anthem singer , appearing everywhere from the US Open to Madison Square Garden, largely because of his “Uncle Junior” role on the show. Others, from Vincent Curatola and Joe Gannascoli also parlayed their success on the show into roles helping lift the profiles of sports and special events…they were not B actors, they were Sopranos stars. Actor Ray Abruzzo, who played “Little Carmine,” even ended up playing the lead role in “Lombardi” in a road version of the hit Broadway show, with the billing carefully tied to “The Sopranos.’
Now in no way was any of this attention, or the ties to sport, not deserved. All the actors had tremendous roles and played them to the hilt, and they deserved the notoriety and sport has always had a love affair with films about organized crime. What is noteworthy is really the level to which sport, especially in the Northeast, embraced the show and its characters. Sopranos minor league baseball and hockey nights, look a like promotions, all went along with the draw, as well as the appearances big and small by cast members to help take an event to the next level, from charity bowling to the NBA. There have been few shows that have crossed so deeply from pop culture into sport like The Sopranos that were not really sports themed, and that is a credit to the cast, the writers, HBO, and most importantly to the lead actor, who brought millions on a great, often troubled ride and will be missed.