James Gandolfini, 51, who swaggered his way to fame as the murderous, clinically depressed mob boss on HBO's groundbreaking drama "The Sopranos," died Wednesday on vacation in Rome, Italy.
The cause of death was not immediately known but was initially attributed to either a heart attack or stroke.
On "The Sopranos," which was created by writer David Chase and ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, Gandolfini played the barrel-chested New Jersey organized crime capo-turned-boss Tony Soprano, who alternated acts of mayhem, infidelity and family loyalty between anguished visits to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). His regular haunt was the Bada Bing, a strip club where he often ran his underworld enterprise.
In Gandolfini’s hands, a potentially unsympathetic and unrelatable character became a kind of post-modern Everyman, even down to his troubled relationship with wife Carmella (Edie Falco). He won three Emmy Awards for the role, now considered one of the hallmark characters of television drama.
“He was a genius,” Chase said in a statement. “Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time.”
“A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For [his wife Deborah Lin] and [children] Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”
Gandolfini was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961. His mother, Joann, was a school cafeteria worker, and his father, Michael, was a janitor, bricklayer and cement mason.
His Italian immigrant parents spoke Italian at home but Gandolfini, one of three children, never learned the language although, he later told interviewers, he always understood when they were angry with him.
After attending public schools in Westwood, he entered Rutgers University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1983. He worked a variety of jobs over the next several years, including stints as a bouncer, bartender and truck driver. He especially enjoyed bartending until, he told Newsweek in 2001, “the waitresses got together and compared notes.”
Acting didn’t cross his mind until he was 25 and a friend took him to a class at the illustrious Actors Studio in New York. It terrified him but he was intrigued. “I’d never been around actors before,” he told an interviewer. “I said to myself, ‘These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.’”
By the early 1990s he was landing parts, one of the earliest the role of Steve Hubbell in a Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and later joined its European tour.
He landed his first movie role in 1992 in director Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us.” His bulky physique and heavy-lidded eyes tended to earn him parts playing thugs, as in “True Romance” (1993), a crime thriller that starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.
In that movie, directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, Gandolfini throws a bloodied Arquette through a glass shower door. That performance brought him to the attention of David Chase, who was searching for an unknown or barely known Italian actor to play Tony Soprano.
When Gandolfini read the script, he told Vanity Fair in 2007, “I laughed my ass off. I was like, This is really different and good, and odd. I thought, I’ve never been the lead before. They’re gonna hire somebody else. But I knew I could do it. I have small amounts of Mr. Soprano in me. I was 35, a lunatic, a madman.”
“We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” said a statement from HBO Wednesday. “He was special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us. “
Though best-known for his Tony Soprano character, Gandolfini also had a raft of character parts in films, including a blustery general in the political satire "In the Loop" in 2009 and as Leon Panetta in "Zero Dark Thirty," both last year.
He also, eerily, had a supporting role opposite Saiorse Ronan in the recent quirky indie "Violet & Daisy," playing a depressive on the verge of suicide.