Honorable Mentions: Lorraine Bracco, Steve Buscemi, David Proval, Annabella Sciorra
10. Tony Sirico
At first thought, Paulie might seem like an odd choice for this list as Tony Sirico is possibly most remembered for his comic relief moments on the show. First off though, comedy was in large ways the foundation of the show so that should not be so easily dismissed. Secondly, Paulie lowkey had a lot of great stories that got to reveal a very pained and insecure man and thus a very interesting character overall. The stuff he did with Christopher, Johnny Sack, and his mother in particular were always consistently great and at times genuinely touching.
9. Aida Turturro
Turturro had an extraordinarily challenging assignment on this show. While it’s likely that Janice always was going to be a big part of the show, she was truly forced to have to take on a lot of the space energy that would have gone to Livia if Nancy Marchand had not passed away. Simultaneously, the biggest source of empathy being generated for Janice was in fact her relationship with Livia so they had to dig even deeper to make Janice into a human being. Turturro masterfully managed to walk the line between “go-away” energy and justifiably grating given the family she was born into.
8. Vincent Curatola
No character probably got a better slow burn, long term arc on the show than Johnny Sack. What started with what was essentially a cameo in one episode in season 1 eventually turned into one of the most complex and nuanced characterizations of the whole show. While Johnny Sack was a delight to watch in his element during his rise to the top of the New York mob, Curatola’s most gripping work was always during his tender scenes with his wife and daughters. He also got one of the more bittersweet and humane endings of any character show in “Stage 5” in the final season.
7. Joe Pantoliano
The presence of Ralphie allowed the audience to understand the extreme nature of the violence fostered within the world of Tony Soprano and the lengths all the characters are willing to go to excuse, ignore, and encourage the needless cruelty in the name of the almighty dollar. If anything, Tony finally feeling that Ralphie crossed a line only when Ralphie killed the horse was the most cynical end possible given just how awful Ralphie had conducted himself prior to that. Joey Pants obviously nailed it every step of the way.
6. Drea de Matteo
There were very few “innocents” in the world of The Sopranos and there were probably even fewer intelligent characters who were capable of pointing out the obvious right thing to do. The only two characters that fit the latter were essentially Adriana and Charmaine. The difference between the two was that Charmaine escaped the trappings of Tony Soprano’s at a young age, and Adriana perhaps was a shade too innocent and a shade less intelligent to be able to do the same thing. No character’s end in the show felt so tragic nor a bigger indictment of the people we had been watching at that point for five seasons.
5. Nancy Marchand
One of the great artistic tragedies from this century was that David Chase and Nancy Marchand never got to properly close out the Tony/Livia relationship. That being said, in just the first two seasons, Livia Soprano managed to make a HUGE impact on the show and delivered one of the most memorable performances ever. While the show evolved in new wonderful ways after season 2, in a significant way, the show always felt like it was missing something without her.
4. Dominic Chianese
No character on the show met a more depressing if perhaps fitting end than Junior Soprano. He essentially lucked his way into surviving way too many mob wars over the year until he got to the top of his world by default. And what did he have to show for it? A depressing house in fucking Belleville, NJ and a little extra money and “prestige” for a few short months until his life crumbled away piece by piece with his mind being the last to go. Through it all though, Dominic Chianese made sure there was a human being in there who much like everyone else was born into a world he never had the tools to escape.
3. Michael Imperioli
Like just about everyone on the show, Christopher’s story was tragic with so many highs (literal and metaphorical) and lows that it required a truly unique performance on the show. Christopher had to truly believe in the world of Tony Soprano to get him through the early years. The growing realization he has that everything Tony touches turns to shit is truly sad to watch, and his inability to grasp that before he sentences Adriana to death is the biggest emotional blow the show delivered to its audience.
2. Edie Falco
While the brunt of the show obvious fell on the shoulders of Gandolfini, Edie Falco time and time again left my jaw on the floor. Falco’s delivered a performance for the ages as she seamlessly would display the cynicism of Carmella along with the part of the character that is desperately trying to escape the world she fell into and imagine something greater for herself and her children. Her inability to do so never gets less painful with each watch of the show.
1. James Gandolfini
I’m not really sure what I can say about Gandfolfini’s work as Tony Soprano that would appropriate in the form of a short, pithy paragraph. I’ll instead just say it means the world to me. It’s not seeing myself in Tony Soprano (thankfully) or anything reductive as that. It’s about the seeing the depths to which a human can sink while all the while remaining positively human right up until the end.