Yesterday, actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at the age of 51. While he played many great roles throughout his career, the one he will be best remembered for is his impressive portrayal of gangster Tony Soprano. In honor of Gandolfini’s most famous character, there are some fantastic pieces of fan art immortalizing the intimidating waste management consultant.
Gandolfini was born to a father who was a native of Borgotaro, Italy and a mother who was born in the
but raised in Naples. Both of his parents were devout Roman Catholics and they constantly spoke Italian while at home. As a result, Gandolfini had close ties to his Italian heritage and often visited the country of his ancestors.
In high school, Gandolfini was voted “Class Flirt” in his school yearbook. As a teen, he played basketball and acted in school plays, though he didn’t fall in love with acting right away.
Gandolfini earned a Communications degree at Rutgers University, where he also worked as a bouncer at the student pub. After college, he moved to NYC and worked as a bartender and club manager. It wasn’t until he went to an acting class with a friend of his that he realized that he wanted to break into the business. He got his first big role in 1992, when he was cast in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire beside Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. His career really took off after his first big screen performance as terrifying henchman in 1993’s True Romance. While he wasn’t a main character in the film, his chilling scene with Alabama was one of the most memorable parts of the movie.
In 1995, he worked with the director of True Romance again, this time in Crimson Tide. Again, he played an intimidating tough guy. As The Daily Beast points out, “Gandolfini, again, stole every scene he was in as the imposing henchman who had no problem doing Capt. Ramsay’s dirty work.”
"He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that," David Chase, who created The Sopranos, said in a statement. "He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."
In 1995, Gandolfini starred in Get Shorty alongside John Travolta and Gene Hackman. This role gave Gandolfini his first chance to show off his comedic talents, rather than just acting as an intimidating monster. Of course, it was Gandolfini’s role in The Sopranos that made him truly famous. The show premiered in 1999 and lasted six seasons. In all, there were 86 episodes showing the difficulties faced by mob boss Tony Soprano as he tried to balance his position in organized crime and his role within his own family. "Jimmy was the spiritual core of our Sopranos family, and I am stunned at this devastating loss," Albrecht, former CEO of HBO and current CEO of Starz, said in a statement. "He was a great talent, but an even better man. My thoughts are with his family.”
Gandolfini won three Emmys for Best Actor in a Drama out of a total six awards he was nominated for during the show’s run. Despite his critical acclaim, the actor never felt comfortable with the press. "My father always said a million times, 'We're peasants,"' Gandolfini told Rolling Stone. "It's just a little odd for me, to get that slightly different treatment sometimes. And I'm uncomfortable with it. ... I want nothing to do with privilege."
During The Sopranos' run, Gandolfini loathed that people really thought he was the cold-blooded killer he played on the show. Shortly after the show started, he once had someone knock on the door of his apartment, "So I opened the door and the guy just turns white," Gandolfini said in a magazine interview. "All of a sudden I realize, 'Oh ... he thinks I'm Tony."'
While the role was an easy one for him to take on—"I'm playing an Italian lunatic from New Jersey, and that's basically what I am," Gandolfini said—the character was drastically different from the real-life personality of the actor, who described himself as "a 260-pound Woody Allen." After The Sopranos ended, Gandolfini tried to shake his mobster image, playing the director of the CIA in Zero Dark Thirty, a comedic Senior Military Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense in In The Loop, gentle monster Carol in Where The Wild Things Are, and a strict, blue-collar father in Not Fade Away.
Gandolfini always maintained a sense of humor about his work, and he loved taking on comedic roles, once quipping, “The older I get, the funnier-looking I get, the more comedies I’m offered. I’m starting to look like a toad, so I’ll probably be getting even more soon.”
Writer, director and producer Steve Zaillian expressed his grief about Gandolfini’s death, saying, "I worked with Jim before The Sopranos and after it, and throughout these many years he has always been the same man. A real man, like they don’t make anymore. Honest, humble, loyal, complicated, as grateful for his success as he was unaffected by it, as respectful as he was respected, as generous as he was gifted. He was big, but even bigger-hearted. I’m so saddened to lose my friend, and sadder still for his family." The actor was in Italy this week to attend the 59th Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, where he was scheduled to participate in an event this weekend with Italian director Gabriele Muccino.
Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, who just gave birth to a baby girl last October. He also has a son from a previous marriage, who was born in 2002.
Yesterday the world lost a truly gifted and humble actor. Friends, family
fans will mourn his loss for years to come.