You’ve probably heard by now that James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano, died in Italy yesterday of a heart attack. Somehow this particular celebrity passing made the rounds on the Internet really quickly. Maybe it was because he played that loveable lug on The Sopranos? I might be the only person who’s never seen even a minute of the show, so I couldn’t tell you.
The media kept saying it was an untimely death, like there are timely ones. But it seems like Gandolfini had his heart episode about the same time lots of men (and women) do.
It seems like an appropriate age somehow, fifty-one. Like that’s the right amount of time for all your bad habits and genetics to catch up with you. Like all the crap you’ve put into your body, the bacon and hot dogs, the cheesecake and margaritas, needed about that much time to build up in your system enough to kill you. Your body’s been chugging along for five decades putting up with everything you’ve been doing to it. It’s done.
Gandolfini was no athlete from the looks of him. He looked like one of those guys you see on the evening news from the neck down in the B-roll and say to yourself, “there’s a heart attack waiting to happen.”
And he’s not the first celebrity to have their heart give out in their 50s. Michael Clarke Duncan, that big hulking bouncer turned actor, star of "The Green Mile" and other movies, had his fatal heart problems around the same age.
Jerry Garcia was 53 when his heart stopped truckin.’ Jim Fixx, the famous runner and the guy who invented jogging had a massive heart attack at 52 after he came back from a long run. Dennis Johnson of the Celtics, actor Steve McQueen, sit-com star Nell Carter, commercial pitchman Billy Mays, Martin Luther King’s eldest daughter Yolanda, former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, Christopher Reeve, John “3’s Company” Ritter— they all died of some form of heart trouble and all in their early 50s.
Between 920,000 and 715,000 regular, non-famous people have heart attacks every year, too... Three-quarters of them are first-timers, a quarter die.
I was nearly one of them, a fact that has not escaped me. I was lucky. I feel blessed. I got an extension on my expiration date. Okay sure, four years ago in the hospital, before my bypass surgery the head of cardiology stopped by to give me words of encouragement.
“You shouldn’t worry, we do this type of surgery all the time,” she told me in her best authoritative voice. “They can last up to 20 years.”
20 years... She said 20 years like this was supposed to make me feel better. Of course now in the back of my head there’s this little clock running off the days ‘til my Gandolfini moment: 16 years and counting.
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