As news about COVID-19 gets worse and worse, Americans are pressed for anything to lift their spirits. Many of us have turned to Tiger King, a Netflix documentary series about the world of exotic cat collectors that’s not so much comforting as it is a glimpse into the unmitigated chaos that has long colored this nation. But isn’t there something — or someone — who makes us feel that all isn’t lost, or that we may know peace?
Yes, there is: Michael Imperioli.
If it weren’t Michael Imperioli’s birthday — he turns a stately 54 years old today, March 26th — I’m not sure how I would be getting through the next few hours. When I saw the tweet above, slotted into a timeline of nothing but despair and horror, I almost wept with relief. Even before my mind went to Imperioli’s masterclass performance as Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos (a role for which he deserved six Emmys, not one), I remembered how, when I lived in New York, I would often see him on the subway after work, semi-incognito in a baseball cap, taking one of his kids home from their school nearby. What a good dad, I thought, and still do. I didn’t even know, back then, that he’d quit smoking cigarettes by training in the martial art of tae kwon do with the fam. “Tae kwon do has transformed our family in body, mind and spirit. It has changed us as human beings,” he said in 2007.
Maybe it’s the stunning contrast between Imperioli and his famous mobster alter ego, one of the biggest shitheads to ever grace our TV screens, that makes his real-life presence so wonderful. Yet it was also his divine empathy as an actor that kept us immersed in Christopher’s addiction, rage, creative blocks and profound selfishness, even after he killed a dog by sitting on it. Only an actor of such balance and poise could have gone on to emerge victorious in the Chopped “Tournament of Champions” in 2014, donating the $50,000 prize to an organization that builds schools in rural Tibet in order keep nomadic culture alive and sustainable in the region. He was a force to behold:
Although Imperioli didn’t make it to last year’s inaugural SopranosCon, where he would have been swamped with adoration from thousands of fans, he and co-star Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) are doing us one better in the form of an upcoming podcast, Talking Sopranos. Episode by episode, the pair will go through the series again, which Imperioli hasn’t seen since it aired — making this perhaps the best rewatch experience a Sopranos obsessive could ask for, especially as we continue to suffer in quarantine. What unexpected insight will Imperioli, not just a writer and producer on the show but a scholar of film, bring to bear? We can’t wait to find out.
Happy birthday, you beautiful, tracksuited man. And thanks, as always, for being you.