James Gandolfini, the stage, screen and film actor who portrayed one the most iconic television characters of the past era, died suddenly in Rome, Italy on June 19, 2013. He was 51. The actor was discovered in his hotel room having suffered a heart attack. He died shortly after at the Policlinico Umberto I Hospital.
He was on vacation and was slated to appear in Sicily to receive an honor at the Taormina Film Festival’s closing ceremony. Gandolfini secured his permanent influence in television history on HBO’s The Sopranos, recently named the best TV show of all time by the Writers Guild of America. His dynamic performance as the meditative, manic-depressive, malicious modern mob-boss Tony Soprano led him to be nominated for six Emmy Awards, of which he won three for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
Born James Joseph Gandofini, Jr. in Westwood, New Jersey on Sept. 18th 1961, his immigrant Italian parents spoke their native language around the house and supported him along with two older sisters on blue collar jobs. His father held several occupations including working as a cement mason, bricklayer, then as a custodian while his mother worked as a head lunch lady in a high school cafeteria. While growing up he never learned Italian but on Inside the Actors Studio in 2004 he said he always knew when his parents were mad because they spoke it only “When they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about…” Gandolfini went on to attend Rutgers University earning a degree in communications in 1983, the first American born male to do so in his family.
After college while in his early twenties he landed a job working as manager of a night club even though he had no previous experience. He told James Lipton , “…didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing, faked my way through it… the club was straight two nights a week, gay two nights a week, and sort of everything else two nights a week…but I saw a lot of interesting things that I stored up for later.” He worked as a bartender as well and would later go on to work as a delivery truck driver. Acting did not become a serious avenue for him until he was mid-twenties when he began taking acting classes in New York after a friend he knew from college persuaded him to attend.
By the 1990s Gandolfini began landing parts on Broadway, his first being a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and shortly after appeared in his first starring role while in Sydney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us.” By then the robustly built actor seemed a natural fit for playing the Mafioso types and went on to star as the muscle alongside Christopher Walken in Tony Scott’s True Romance. His brilliant talent shined as he remarkably exhibited his versatility revealing naturalistic ability playing the evocative, contemplative, sociopathic gangster, Virgil. He went on to star in a slew of film in the 1990s and 2000s including Get Shorty, 8mm, The Man Who Wasn’t There, In the Loop and most recently Zero Dark Thirty. In 2009 Gandolfini won a Tony Award for his work on stage in the renowned play God of Carnage.
Gandolfini only become a household name when David Chase casted him in The Sopranos which went on to turn HBO into a powerhouse thus marking a creative shift in the medium, and opening the door for basic cable television to produce shows like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire. His tour de force performances enthralled viewers week after week with a humanistic portrayal of a balding, overweight middle-aged Mafia boss trying to raise a family and maintain a marriage. Gandofini leaves behind a wife Deborha Lin, 13 year old son, and infant daughter.