I'm listening to Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The book was published before James Gandolfini's death, which makes its beginning all the more poignant -- a story of a time during the filming of The Sopranos when Gandolfini went missing for 24 hours, then called the production team from a beauty salon with no money asking for a ride home.
It seems that Gandolfini did not always handle the emotional burden of playing Tony Soprano all that well, finding it necessary to work himself into an emotional frenzy to play the role, and this spilled over into other aspects of his life.
It certainly seems possible that if Gandolfini was not cast as Tony Soprano, he would still be alive today.
This is interesting me in considering the concussion problem in the NFL, and other issues of player safety.
The growing consensus seems to be that the NFL is exploiting its players, putting their safety at risk; the owners and league office are hypocritical money-grubbers who don't give a damn about player safety no matter what they say and do, and we should generally be ashamed for following it.
If James Gandolfini had spent 1999-2005 playing linebacker for the Giants rather than Tony Soprano, his death would have launched some soul searching and questions about the dangers of football. But, as far as I can tell, no similar soul searching took place regarding television, that maybe networks should tone down their characters so as not to put actors at risk.
It is certainly possible that Gandolfini is an outlier in this regard. The book goes on to mention that Edie Falco had no problems transitioning between her life and her portrayal of Carmela Soprano. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston seem to be able to handle their characters well enough. Perhaps Gandolfini was just unstable.
By the same token, I turn on my TV every weekend and see Troy Aikman, Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth, Rodney Harrison, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Michael Strahan, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and many other former NFL players who seem to be in full possession of their mental faculties.
Or maybe it's worth it. Maybe if you told James Gandolfini in 1999, "Look, if you take this role, you will be the face of one of the iconic characters in American culture. But it will require so much out of you that you will pass away a few years after the show ends," he would still take it. Just like many NFL players say they would play if they were aware of the risks.
Maybe Gandolfini isn't an anomaly, but what is not anomalous is the pattern of what happens to child stars. We acknowledge this, but don't really insist that anything be done about it, even treating people whose lives were ruined by getting too much too soon as punch lines (e.g. Lindsay Lohan).
Could we enjoy Mad Men without having children play Don Draper's children? We don't even seriously consider the question. If those child actors' lives are ruined by playing a role in an adult drama and becoming famous, and having their performance ripped apart on the internet, well, that's what happens.
This doesn't mean that the NFL is blameless, or that there's nothing we can do to make the game safer, or that a game that leaves a significant number of its participants mentally damaged is suitable mass entertainment.
But it is interesting how our outrage differs according to context.