Terrible news for TV fans: James Gandolfini, who played mobster Tony Soprano on HBO’s seminal drama “The Sopranos,” died suddenly today at the age of 51.
Gandolfini was traveling in Italy on vacation when he fell ill; conflicting reports have him suffering either a heart attack or a stroke. He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, and an eight-month-old daughter, Liliana, as well as a son, Michael, from a previous marriage.
HBO confirmed his death in a statement: “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. 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 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.”
Gandolfini won three Emmys, three SAG Awards, and one Golden Globe for his performance as Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO drama — a complex, sometimes villainous role that launched the current wave of TV antiheroes. “The Sopranos” remains HBO’s highest-rated series ever, with 13.4 million viewers tuning in for the Season 4 premiere in 2002.
“Sopranos” creator David Chase lauded Gandolfini in a statement: “He was a genius. 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 Deborah and 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.”
In addition to “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini appeared in dozens of movies, including memorable supporting turns in “True Romance,” “Get Shorty,” and last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” He was also an accomplished stage actor, joining Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange in the 1992 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and scoring a Tony nomination in 2009 for his role in the long-running play “God of Carnage.”
Born in Westwood, New Jersey in 1961, Gandolfini was raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic home by two Italian-speaking parents. He appeared in plays in high school and later attended Rutgers University, working as a bouncer at an on-campus bar. While living in New York City, he tagged along with a friend to an acting class and felt so exhilarated, he knew he had to come back.
Gandolfini built an admirable film career in the ’90s but never approached stardom until Chase cast him as Tony Soprano. And even then, he didn’t think he deserved it. “I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy,” he told Vanity Fair. “Not George Clooney, but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that.” In fact, HBO did approach “GoodFellas” star Ray Liotta about the role, but Liotta wanted to concentrate on movies. So Gandolfini got the nod.
His relationship with HBO continued after “The Sopranos” ended in 2007. He produced a pair of probing documentaries for the network, “Alive Day: Home From Iraq” and “Wartorn: 1865-2010,” about the challenges soldiers face after returning home from war. And Gandolfini was slated to star as a defense attorney in HBO’s upcoming miniseries “Criminal Justice”; the network ordered a seven-episode limited run last month.