The heavyset American actor was well-respected for his craft and his sudden death has left many of his peers in shock. James Gandolfini, the burly actor best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of a conflicted New Jersey mob boss in the groundbreaking cable TV series The Sopranos (1999–2007), died on Wednesday while vacationing in Italy. He was 51.
Gandolfini, whose role as Tony Soprano made him a household name while transforming the HBO network and ushering in a new era of drama on American television, had been scheduled to attend the closing of the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on Saturday.
He died of a possible heart attack in Rome, HBO spokeswoman Mara Mikialian told Reuters.
The television drama often focused on the family of mobster Tony Soprano, an Italian-American character who tried to balance the obligations of running a criminal organisation while also managing a dysfunctional family.
“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” the network 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.”
Gandolfini, a virtual unknown when cast in The Sopranos, broke ground with his signature portrait of the show’s title character, the head of a fictional New Jersey mob family.
As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini created a gangster different from any previously seen in American television or film. By the start of the show’s final season, Gandolfini suggested he was ready to move on to more gentle roles once his TV mobster days were over. “I’m too tired to be a tough guy or any of that stuff anymore,” he had said earlier.
At its peak in its fourth season, it is estimated by Nielsen ratings that the show had an average of almost 11 million American viewers alone. Meanwhile, the show’s final episode, where many fans speculated that Tony Soprano would be killed, was watched by nearly 12 million viewers in America. In 2007, Vanity Fair called The Sopranos, “perhaps the greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day, a fearless series that has transformed television.”
Embodying the fearless nature of the series was Gandolfini, who beautifully walked a tightrope between the stereotypical uncaring alpha male, and an individual haunted by the murders of many. As a testament of his acting prowess, Gandolfini was most compelling during The Sopranos when his character was involved in psychiatric sessions with Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). These scenes could have easily been dull, but Tony Soprano had great chemistry with his shrink, eventually developing mutual feelings of attraction. Here, Gandolfini displayed great emotional range as a tough guy looking to smother his own sensitivity, which was naturally written on his face.
Because of his success on the show, the overweight actor also became an unlikely sex symbol, with a legion of female fans. In that sense, he was an interesting anomaly in Hollywood, an industry where most heartthrobs are metrosexual actors with chiseled physiques.
In one of his best exchanges with Dr Melfi, an irate Tony bemoaned the new breed of sensitive men, and wondered what happened to the ‘strong silent types’, ala Clint Eastwood. Perhaps it is fitting that as part of his legacy, Gandolfini will be remembered as the attractive, ‘strong silent type’ of his generation.
The programme, which earned Gandolfini three Emmy Awards as best lead actor in a drama series, was considered by many critics at the time the finest drama to have aired on US television. The series concluded with a final episode that strongly suggested Tony was about to be murdered before abruptly ending mid-scene, cutting from a shot of Gandolfini’s face to a blank screen.
Gandolfini preceded his career as a performer by working as a truck driver, bouncer and nightclub manager in New York City before he went to an acting class with a friend and got hooked. “I’d also never been around actors before,” he told Time magazine earlier. “And I said to myself, ‘These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.’”
Born in Westwood, New Jersey, Gandolfini was raised in a working-class, Italian-American family by a father who was a bricklayer and high school custodian and a mother who worked in a school cafeteria.
Gandolfini had a son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski, whom he divorced in 2002. In 2008, he married model Deborah Lin, who gave birth to a daughter, Liliana, in 2012.
Michael Moore @MMFlint36m
James Gandolfini, one of the good guys, kind and generous, and an active supporter of documentary film-makers. RIP
Paris Hilton @ParisHilton1h
RIP James Gandolfini. A brilliant actor. Too young to pass [away]. My prayers go out to his family and friends.
Ewan McGregor @mcgregor_ewan
Jesus. The world just lost one of its greatest actors. James Gandolfini has passed away. Thoughts to his family. Such a talent. I’m saddened.
Al Roker @alroker
Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was one of the most nuanced, layered gangsters ever caught on film. His acting and Matt Weiner’s words were magic.
Susan Sarandon @SusanSarandon
So sad to lose James Gandolfini. One of the sweetest, funniest, most generous actors I’ve ever worked with. Sending prayers to his family.
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos
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.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2013.
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