James Gandolfini was supposed to star in HBO’s “The Night Of,” not John Turturro.
He did just that in a pilot version of HBO’s limited series. The cable network took a look and took a pass.
Gandolfini’s sudden death in Europe seemed to foreclose any discussion of a remake of the previous BBC success called “Criminal Justice.”
Except that, somewhat remarkably, it didn’t.
That’s why you’ll be seeing it this summer in the “Game of Thrones” time slot. And it’s one of the more welcome developments in movies and TV of the past few decades.
For the first time that I know of, one of our greatest living character actors – the extraordinary John Turturro – is being treated as a star, with on-screen star privileges.
Never mind the awards he’s won and the affection of filmmakers from Robert Redford (“Quiz Show”) to the Coen Brothers (for whom he played “Barton Fink.” Will we ever get out of our heads the purple-clad image of Turturro as Jesus Quintana in “The Big Lebowski” lasciviously polishing his bowling ball? I think not.).
Look at Turturro’s filmography: He’s played Sam Giancana, Howard Cosell, Billy Martin, writer Primo Levi and the starring role in a film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “The Luzhin Defense.”
Turturro is no one’s idea of a rakishly handsome leading man. He’s tall and thin with oversized teeth and an oversized nose. His face is all-purpose ethnic, for casting purposes. But he is so much more valuable and likable than a “leading man” – the kind of master character actor who helps to make movies and television possible.
He can scare the hell out of you on Thursday, make you laugh your fool head off on Friday and break your heart on Saturday.
None of which is what he does on the Sunday premiere of “The Night Of,” in which he plays a bottom-feeding attorney of minimal esteem in the courthouse, the cop house or anywhere else in the world. His minuscule claims of respectability aren’t exactly helped by a case of eczema on his feet that causes him to walk around in sandals and use a ruler to scratch unreachable spots inside his socks.
Lest you think that is the sort of pungent detail that should fly by in miniseries portraiture, guess again. We follow his ailing feet through eczema support groups and the offices of medical authorities, one of whom recommends oiling up his feet with Crisco and then wrapping them in Glad Wrap before donning socks and sandals.
For all that, he is possessed with the sort of effortless wisdom one gains attending to the legal problems of society’s bottom dogs. His is the ambulance-chaser’s eye view; if he hasn’t seen it all, he’s seen most of it, and most at a much-lower level than most in his profession are used to. It comes naturally for those in his milieu to ask one crime witness, “If I turn you upside down, how much weed comes out?”
If you understand that this was a role intended for the effortless ministrations of the man who gave us Tony Soprano, you can be thrilled for Turturro that he gets to inhabit a role with so much easy wit and authority.
I watched “The Night Of” thinking that he’s spent 30 years earning exactly this much off-handed stardom in a movie. Add to all those Coen movies and “Quiz Show,” I couldn’t get out of my head Turturro’s role in the most shocking thing I have ever seen on screen in my life. Tony Bill’s “Five Corners” from 1987 was from a script by John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck,” “Joe Vs. The Volcano”). It’s about the Five Corners intersection of the Bronx’s Van Nest neighborhood. He plays a fictional character named Heinz, whom I first encountered as an early ’60s fabled figure in Bronx folklore. Stories about him were relayed to me by one of my Syracuse University dorm-mates – an astonishingly bibulous but delightful fellow who, in an era not noted for such things, arrived at college with a Fabian haircut and a huge tattoo of a black panther with bloody claws covering his entire left arm. (His way of introducing himself to me was, “Ain’t I collegiate?”)
He was from Parkchester, a housing development in the Bronx next to Van Nest. He regaled me with stories about this character who was said to be the one who stole a penguin from the Bronx Zoo and paraded it along the bar of his favorite gin mill, to the disbelief of the early morning patrons who thought they were hallucinating.
Those stories were funny. The movie, on the other hand, tells the penguin tale but goes somewhere else, with Turturro playing Heinz, a psychopath whose mother calls him “my little Heinzie” as a prelude to the biggest shock I’ve ever had in a movie – one that I couldn’t have guessed in a million years.
“The Night Of,” as was “Five Corners,” is a writers’ fiesta; it’s from writer/director Steve Zaillian (who wrote “Schindler’s List”) and writer Richard Price (“Clockers,” “The Wire,” “Sea of Love,” “The Color of Money”).
Think of “The Night Of” as a TV police procedural in which every procedure usually left out of TV’s version is left in. Think of it as “American Crime” Meets “Law and Order” Meets “The Wire” Meets “Oz.”
I can’t guarantee that every minute of the seven hours of “The Night Of” I’ve seen will rivet you. (The hour-long finale I haven’t seen yet.) What I can tell you is that this is the kind of TV that happens when two top-drawer screenwriters get together with a character star who has always been a writer’s dream.
I’ll take it over “Game of Thrones” any day.