Oh what might have been: Gandolfini as the 'Tony Soprano' of urban planning?

June 24, 2013

Here's one more reason to mourn last week's death of actor James Gandolfini: The former star of HBO's The Sopranos series had an eye on playing Robert Moses, the powerful and controversial public works and urban planning czar who reshaped and modernized the Big Apple.
 
This revelation comes courtesy of a New Republic online piece last week by Anthony Flint, who wrote Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City. Flint said HBO contacted his agent in 2009 for the book's film option. Gandolfini read film scripts created from the book and envisioned starring, producing and directing the project--but it never came together.
 
Flint's book wasn't the only tome Gandolfini looked to for source material. In 2011, The Hollywood Reporter listed Gandolfini was possible executive producer of a planned HBO adaptation of Robert Caro's 1974 Moses biography, The Power Broker, directed by Oliver Stone.
 
"We have no idea if it will be James Gandolfini in the end [as Moses] but can you imagine?" the New York Observer said in 2011. "He’s got the build, the accent, the gravitas, that’s for sure."

Done right, it could have been a plumb role for Gandolfini, who died last Wednesday at age 51 while on vacation in Italy. Moses died in 1981 at age 92. The parallels between the Tony Soprano and Moses--men who knew how to get what they wanted--are uncanny, as Flint noted.

"Moses, after all, was a little like a crime boss," Flint wrote in the New Republic. "He started out in the 1920s as a state parks commissioner and built the parkways of Long Island, and Jones Beach. From the 1930s to the 1960s he built his syndicate, based in the quasi-public and independent Triborough Bridge Authority, which had its own fleet and police force. He had millions at his disposal, the power to hire and fire, and made big things happen with a single phone call made from his office lair at Randall’s Island at the base of the mighty span."

As head of the Triborough Bridge Authority from 1934 until his death, Moses built bridges, beaches, parks, public housing, expressways and transit infrastructure at staggering scope and frequency. The tide began to shift when his attempts to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway--it called for the demolition of SoHo and Little Italy--ran into civic opposition. Among his adversaries was author and activist Jane Jacobs was who fought against the expressway and massive "slum clearance" projects in general.
 
The battles between Moses and Jacobs were the stuff of legend--and this pretty good documentary:

The Moses film was one of several projects Gandolfini left behind. Here are more.