Like millions, I was shocked and saddened to learn of actor James Gandolfini’s death last week. His portrayal of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano is one of the greatest works in American visual fiction. By all accounts, James Gandolfini was a nice person as well as a talented actor. The outpourings of sympathy to his family and honoring assessments of his whole body of work are certainly well-deserved.
There is just one thing that troubles me from a reputation management point-of-view. That is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to fly the state’s flags at half-mast in honor of Gandolfini on Monday, June 24th. The order affects flags at all state buildings.
In his executive order, Christie described Gandolfini as “an iconic actor, who left a timeless impact upon television and film in the state of New Jersey and across our nation.”
OK, but as Governor, part of Christie’s job is to be a chief strategist for that brand known as the state of New Jersey. In that regard, I wonder if the good Governor might be making a long-term strategic error.
While New Jersey can certainly claim locally-raised and Rutgers-educated Gandolfini as its own, I tended to think – and still do – that flying the flags at half-mast should be for military heroes, law enforcement people killed in the line of duty, or honored public officials.
The problem with honoring Gandolfini this way is that most people will primarily associate the iconic actor with one role, Tony Soprano. As charming and insightful as the character could be, he is still a murderous thug who corrupted or destroyed anything that got in his way.
One of the great things about “The Sopranos” is how easy it was to get the warm and fuzzies, thinking that T, Christopher, Paulie, and Sylvio had a certain comical, raffish charm in their manners and malapropisms. At times they could be like The Three Stooges trying to act civilized at a dinner party. Then, creator David Chase would shock the audience right in the solar plexus with something violent and abhorrent. They aren’t meant to represent the finest of humanity.
New Jersey has spent decades enduring jokes based on stereotypes about its people, air pollution, corruption, the sterility or poverty of its communities, and even about Turnpike rest stops (thanks, Jim McGreevey). Some of those deserved to disappear back when Joe Piscopo’s promising career in Hollywood went kaput. Many New Jersey cities and towns have worked hard on livable streets and making communities more hospitable. The state’s tourism, economic development and environmental preservation departments have invested a lot of talent in turning things around for the positive.
I’m not saying that having one day of honor for James Gandolfini, actor and human being, will undo all those efforts. I just think that Christie may have made a natural and sympathetic over-reaction to Gandolfini’s death, and it could continue send the wrong message about New Jersey – that the state is proud of how it’s portrayed on “The Sopranos.”
When I came home from college for semester break in December 1982, my father told me that Jack Webb, creator and star of “Dragnet,” had died at age 62. He also thought it was totally appropriate that the Los Angeles Police Department was flying its flags at half-mast for the next several days in honor of Webb.
My reaction was “huh?” I didn’t understand why the LAPD would do such a thing. Jack Webb wasn’t a cop. Today I understand how little that mattered. The LAPD was honoring what Webb had done for their reputation. The nation’s second largest police department was considered a cesspool of corruption and brutality when “Dragnet” began its radio run in 1946, Webb, working closely with reform-minded LAPD chief William Parker, transformed that image. The American public came away with a positive impression of the LAPD – one that endured at least until the 1991 Rodney King beating.
Can Governor Christie honestly say the same about what “The Sopranos” has done for New Jersey? James Gandolfini had a modest side. He happily relinquished the spotlight in producing the HBO documentary “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq”, and probably felt that soldiers were more deserving of flags flying at half-mast than he. That’s why I’d like to think that he would have said to Governor Christie that this decree, while generous, may not be doing the GardenState any great favors for its reputation.