Tony Soprano, The Hero As Villain

This undated publicity photo, released by HBO, shows actor James Gandolfini in his role as Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey crime family portrayed in HBO's "The Sopranos." The acclaimed dramatic series starts its sixth season March 12, following a 20-month hiatus. (AP Photo/HBO, Barry Wetcher)
AP Photo/HBO, Barry Wetcher
Can audiences accept a hero who is also a villain? Sunday Morning critic David Edelstein thinks so, if it's family man and gang boss Tony Soprano.

Director David Cronenberg once told me that back in the eighties, when he was trying to make his version of "The Fly" — the one where Jeff Goldblum turns into a gooey monster — a studio head said it wouldn't work; he said he didn't think audiences could deal with a hero who is also the villain.

Scary, huh? There goes "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." There go the most fascinating characters in literature.

Television, where fathers were supposed to know best, was even less friendly to moral ambiguity — which is why "The Sopranos" was a landmark.

When we first met James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano in 1999, he seemed to be evolving. He was seeing a psychiatrist; he was coming to terms with his life. He was a gang boss, sure, but he had a crazy narcissistic mom, he cared about his kids, he wasn't a sociopath, like his nephew Christopher.

And then came the episode where he took his daughter Meadow to Maine to see a college and spied a rat, an ex-gangster relocated by the witness protection program. Tony saw the man had a wife and kids and hesitated — and we knew he wouldn't kill him.

Only he did.

No matter how much we empathized with and lived vicariously through these characters, creator David Chase made sure to slap us awake — to remind us they were terrible people. Tony ordered the murder of the one entirely sympathetic character, Drea di Matteo's Adriana.

Last season, Joseph Gannascoli's Vito was discovered to be gay, taboo in Mafia culture, and he fled to New Hampshire — how could we not be touched by the sad sack's plight? Only then, he shot a man whose car he hit while driving drunk.

Even Edie Falco's Carmela is tainted. Earlier this season, the budding realtor worried a rainstorm would ruin the sale of a house she'd had built. That shoddy edifice could stand for the Sopranos' way of life: rotted by self-interest, its collapse inevitable.

It makes you think of the ways most of us compromise, in big and little ways, for the sake of self-interest — and how our own lives, as Americans, are unsustainable.

No one knows if in the last episode Tony Soprano will die. Who could write his epitaph? Not Chase — he needed more than 80 hours to take the measure of the man. But I know this: Our perceptions, our lives, our culture is enriched by a hero who is finally a villain.