James Gandolfini took his large frame and sad eyes to television as the ruthless New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano and made The Sopranos (1999-2007) not only a global success, but also one of television's most influential programmes and a staple of popular culture. He once described himself as “a 260lb Woody Allen”.
The strength of Gandolfini’s portrayal lay in his Italian-American character’s conflicting emotions as he juggled his criminal career with family life. The first episode featured Tony suffering a panic attack, collapsing and starting therapy with Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). The story of his father’s influence on his gangster career spills out, along with his manipulative mother’s personality disorder and the difficult relationship he has with his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), who endures his marital infidelities but finds it difficult to reconcile her comfortable lifestyle with the means used to fund it. His teenage son and daughter, who have troubles of their own, gradually learn of their father’s Mafia activities.
Like the 1960s British series The Prisoner, The Sopranos’ title sequence features its star driving his car on a route that firmly establishes the programme’s identity. The cigar-puffing Gandolfini is seen emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel, entering the New Jersey Turnpike, then passing various state landmarks before turning into the drive of his suburban home.
Created by David Chase and made by HBO, The Sopranos was the most successful made-for-cable television series in American history and achieved overwhelming critical acclaim. This year, the American publication TV Guide ranked it No 2 in its all-time list of dramas and earlier this month it was voted the best-written TV series of all time by the Writers Guild of America.
Gandolfini – whose portrayal of the intense but vulnerable Tony Soprano won him three Emmy Awards as best actor in a drama series – landed the role after a casting director spotted him as a hit-man in the 1993 feature film True Romance.
Taking the lead role on screen for the first time in The Sopranos was daunting for Gandolfini, but he reflected: “I have small amounts of Mr Soprano in me. I was 35, a lunatic, a madman." He also shared Tony’s appetite for eating and drinking, and experience of psychoanalysis.
Gandolfini revelled in the complexity of the character. “Here’s this guy with all this power, and his wife and his mother can cut him down to size in about three seconds,” he said.
The Sopranos ended with the supposed murder of Tony in a diner by a hit-man – as his assassin approached, the screen went blank. When Gandolfini himself died of a suspected heart attack, that scene’s real-life location – an ice cream parlour and restaurant – announced that it would temporarily be leaving the table empty, with a “reserved” sign, as a mark of respect.
Gandolfini was born in New Jersey, where his Italian-born father was a bricklayer and his mother, American-born of Italian origin, managed a high school’s meals service.
As a child, he was a keen cinema-goer. Seeing Robert De Niro’s performance as a small-time crook in the 1973 film Mean Streets was a significant influence on his life, as were Robert Redford’s movies.
At Park Ridge High School, he acted in plays, before graduating with a BA in communication studies from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, then managing a New York nightclub. In his mid-20s, he took a two-year acting course after being encouraged to do so by a friend of a friend.
Gandolfini was soon appearing in plays at West Bank Café, on West 42nd Street. He made his Broadway début as Steve Hubbell in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1992), alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
Although his first film role was a bit part as an orderly in the 1987 horror comedy Shock! Shock! Shock!, it was True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, that gave him his big break. In one of the most violent scenes ever written by Tarantino, Virgil – Gandolfini’s “nice guy” henchman working for Christopher Walken’s gangster – beats up a prostitute (Patricia Arquette) in a motel room. She gains her revenge by stabbing him to death with a corkscrew.
Gandolfini continued this talent for getting in the minds of complex characters in The Juror (1996), as a Mafia godfather’s sidekick, and Night Falls on Manhattan (1996, directed by Sidney Lumet), as a corrupt police officer. In Get Shorty (1995), his screen stuntman character is beaten up by the film’s star, John Travolta, playing a mobster.
Between series of The Sopranos, Gandolfini lost more than 40lb to act a homosexual hit-man who kidnaps Julia Roberts’s character in the film comedy The Mexican (2001). Television fame brought him a string of other big-screen roles, including Big Dave Brewster, a victim of blackmail, in the Coen brothers’ crime drama The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
Gandolfini said his admiration for his hard-working mother and father always led him to take blue-collar roles. “I like to play people like my parents,” he explained. “Lawyers and stockbrokers don’t interest me.”
When The Sopranos ended, supporting film roles kept coming. One of his most recent was as the director of the CIA in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Gandolfini was given the opportunity to highlight his support for war veterans by producing two documentaries, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq (2007) and Wartorn: 1861-2010 (2010).
The shy actor also appeared on Broadway as Charley Malloy in On the Waterfront (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 1995), a disastrous, short-lived adaptation of the 1954 film.
Later, he won plaudits – and a Tony Award nomination – for his leading role as Michael, one of four parents coming to blows over their children’s playground brawl, in the comedy God of Carnage (Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, 2009), which transferred to the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (2011).
James Joseph Gandolfini, actor: born Westwood, New Jersey 18 September 1961; married 1999 Marcella Wudarski (marriage dissolved 2002; one son), 2008 Deborah Lin (one daughter); died Rome 19 June 2013.