The actor James Gandolfini, best known for his iconic portrayal of troubled mobster Tony Soprano, has died aged 51. He suffered a suspected heart attack on Wednesday while on holiday in Rome.
Tributes poured in from Hollywood and beyond for the actor who brought to vivid life the conflicted crime boss at the heart of The Sopranos, perhaps the most acclaimed small-screen series of all time. His performance helped to usher in a golden age of cable television drama, and cemented the HBO channel’s name as a byword for quality.
In a statement yesterday, Sopranos creator David Chase described Gandolfini as a “genius”, saying, “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… 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.”
Like his most famous character, Gandolfini was an Italian-American from New Jersey. Born in 1961, he worked as a barman and bouncer in New York City before a friend persuaded him to attend an acting class. In 1992 he was cast alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The following year he took a supporting role as a hood in the Quentin Tarantino-scripted movie, True Romance.
It was that performance which earned him the role of Tony Soprano, who juggled his murderous work with an ostensibly sedate suburban family life, and whom Gandolfini played for six series from 1999 to 2007. He was nominated for six Emmy Awards, winning three.
On Wednesday night, fans arrived in force at the ice cream shop in Bloomfield, New Jersey where the final diner scene of The Sopranos was shot. The table where Tony and his family sat during that scene was left empty, however, but for a reserved sign in Gandolfini’s memory. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in a tweet that the actor was a “NJ treasure”.
Gandolfini’s film career included memorable supporting roles in Get Shorty (1995), Crimson Tide (1995), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Killing Them Softly (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Shortly before his death, he had been working on a US remake of the BBC series Criminal Justice for HBO. “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” HBO said in a statement. “He was a 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 humour, his warmth and his humility.”
Gandolfini is survived by his wife Deborah Lin and their daughter Liliana, who was born in October. He also has a teenage son, Michael, from his first marriage to Marcy Wudarksi.