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James Gandolfini Is Dead at 51

Actor made an indelible mark as Tony Soprano

Photo: Andrew Burton

James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-born actor who left an indelible impression on American popular culture with his portrayal of haunted mob boss Tony Soprano, died Wednesday after reportedly suffering a heart attack. He was 51.

Gandolfini’s death was confirmed by his managers, Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders.

The Sopranos star passed away while on vacation in Rome, Italy. Gandolfini this Saturday was scheduled to appear alongside actress Marisa Tomei during the closing ceremony of the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily.

Gandolfini’s panel was to have led into the world premiere of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger.

HBO released a statement shortly after news of Gandolfini’s death began circulating online. “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” the statement read. “He was 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.”

After The Sopranos faded to black in June 2007, Gandolfini continued his affiliation with HBO, producing the documentaries Alive Day:Home From Iraq and Wartorn:1861-2010. He also produced the Emmy-nominated miniseries Hemingway & Gellhorn and starred with Tim Robbins and Diane Lane in the HBO original movie Cinema Verite.

HBO in May ordered seven episodes of the crime drama Criminal Justice, which was to have starred Gandolfini as a hard-on-his-luck New York jailhouse attorney who defends a young Pakistani-American man accused of killing a woman after a one-night stand. The fate of the project is now uncertain.

Gandolfini had a number of projects in development, including a comedy that he was to have produced for CBS (Taxi-22) and a starring role in a film adaptation of the 2010 book Eating With the Enemy. The latter effort would have marked his seventh collaboration with HBO.

In 2009, he starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway play God of Carnage.

While Gandolfini went on to inhabit a number of post-Sopranos roles, appearing in films like Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty and David Chase’s Not Fade Away, he will be remembered best for his iconic turn as Tony Soprano. A hulking, terrifying sociopath (Tony racked up as many as eight on-screen kills over the course of 86 episodes), the boss of the DiMeo crime family was also a ruefully funny, not infrequently charming son of a bitch. (One of Tony’s more inspired moments arrived when he embellished the details of Richie Aprile’s final resting place: “We buried him ... on a hill ... overlooking a little river... with pine cones all around. Come on, Janice! What the fuck do you care what we did with him?”)

That Gandolfini could imbue a monster like Tony Soprano with recognizable human qualities was a testament to his skill as an actor and the obvious joy he took in playing the part. And it’s hard to imagine a character who was more at odds with the man who brought him to life. In a series of interviews I conducted in 2000, Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) all used the word “sweetheart” to describe their co-star. (Sirico used the term shortly before he began relating a hair-raising tale about pistol-whipping a Greenwich Village barkeep.)

Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (2000, 2001, 2003). He also took home three Screen Actors Guild statuettes and a Golden Globe.

Born on Sept. 18, 1961, in Westwood, N.J., Gandolfini went on to graduate from Rutgers University in 1983. (Tony Soprano lasted a semester-and-a-half at Seton Hall.) One of his first roles in a high-profile film was in Tony Scott’s True Romance, a cheeky noir written by Quentin Tarantino. He played a hit man named Virgil in a brutally violent scene opposite star Patricia Arquette.

Before getting tapped by Chase, Gandolfini worked with a roster of directors that included the likes of Sidney Lumet, Barry Sonnenfeld, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Minghella and William Friedkin. In the wake of his Sopranos fame, the actor would go on to earn roles in films by Joel and Ethan Coen, Kathryn Bigelow and Armando Iannucci.

Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, a year-old daughter, Liliana, and a teenage son, Michael.

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