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When an actor passes away in his or her prime, typically society doesn’t immediately jump the gun and try to recast the roles the person was signed on for. James Gandolfini died back in June after suffering a heart attack. Hollywood needed some time to mourn, but now that it is almost October, it’s time to get back to business and sort through all of the projects Gandolfini had lined up. On Wednesday, HBO took the first step toward doing so by greenlighting the network’s limited series, Criminal Justice, with Robert De Niro signed on in the actor’s place.
The New York crime story was a passion project for Gandolfini, who was expected to begin filming the rest of the series after he returned from Rome (where the heart attack occurred). In the drama, Gandolfini was set to play a sleazy NYC attorney who signs on to defend a Pakistani man (Riz Ahmed) who has been accused of murder. Since Gandolfini’s character is integral to the series, but only appears toward the end of the pilot episode, Deadline says that producers spent a considerable amount of time thinking about who might be able to fill Gandolfini’s shoes and came up with De Niro’s name. Luckily, De Niro accepted the part.
The news is a major turnaround from HBO’s initial announcement in June, which noted the project was shelved until further notice and that the pilot for Criminal Justice, featuring Gandolfini, would never air. The show was initially conceived as a full-blown series, but after the pilot was filmed, HBO scaled the project back to a 7-part event series. While HBO is sticking to its guns by not airing the pilot, the limited series will live on, after all, and it sounds like other than Gandolfini’s recasting, the show will move forward with the same cast and crew that initially signed on.
Richard Price wrote the project based on a BBC series created by Stephen Moffat. Steven Zaillian is still behind Criminal Justice and is set to direct the first hour of the 7-parter. Gandolfini will retain a posthumous executive producing credit. Other executive producers include Zaillian, Price, Moffat, Jane Tranter, and Jane Rosenthal.
Gandolfini had a few other projects in the works around the time of his death. A couple of these are film projects like Animal Rescue and Enough Said that were completed. Other projects, like HBO’s Bone Wars, were not in the process of shooting, and may never come to fruition. In some ways it’s a little better if an actor’s last projects are left untouched. In other ways, I still kind of hope Gandolfini’s last few projects get picked up with different actors. There’s no doubt Gandolfini will be missed, but it’s also kind of a nice tribute to keep a project going if it is done the right way, and Criminal Justice seems to have a good grasp on the project and the direction it wants to go in with De Niro.