For an actor whose work inspired a golden age of television antiheroes, James Gandolfini seemed a man supremely uncomfortable with the fan adoration and acclaim that came with the job. Still, since word spread of Gandolfini's death Wednesday, admirers everywhere have crowded Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, TV reports and interviews with kind words for the actor, whose portrayal of balding, beefy mobster Tony Soprano on HBO's mob drama The Sopranos revolutionized television.
"I'm floored and devastated," said Dean Norris, a co-star on the AMC series Breaking Bad who plays a follically challenged, beefy politician villain in the upcoming CBS miniseries, Under the Dome. "I was out in California for a long time and in TV you had to be a model to get on TV," Norris recalled. "(Gandolfini) was a guy that guys who looked like me saw and said 'Okay, he's not a model. He's just good.' "
Gandolfini, 51, died in Italy of a suspected heart attack while on vacation. He had been scheduled to participate in the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily.
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, released a statement calling him a genius: "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.' ... 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."
Despite recent roles in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Gandolfini was best known for his eight years spent playing troubled mob boss Tony Soprano, a ruthless criminal given to panic attacks who could only be intimidated by his wife and overbearing mother.
"I think the character of Tony, David Chase and myself have a sense of self loathing that we share in common," Gandolfini once said, quoted in the 2000 book The Sopranos: A Family History. "Which is the only way that character works. I think he (Chase) can write it, I can play it and Tony has it."
The success of The Sopranos fueled the success of HBO, which went on to break the mold for typical television with series such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. At their heart was a kind of character American TV audiences had never seen rendered so visibly: the antihero.
Gandolfini's Tony Soprano was the first and best of this bunch, a sociopathic criminal who would have been a villain in a more traditional story. Chase and Gandolfini humanized his character, turning him into an unlikely sex symbol for some and a cherished hero for others, capable of taking his daughter on a college tour one moment, and killing a snitch he discovers near the school in another.
The role could take its toll on Gandolfini. In the new book Difficult Men, on the rise of quality TV shows such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin describes the actor sometimes failing to show for work, struggling to deal with fame and tortured by the strain of inhabiting the character at times.
"Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom box radio," Martin wrote in the book, due for publication next month. "To anybody who had witnessed the actor's self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera — he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head — it was a plausible scenario."
Still, Gandolfini's achievements brought a Golden Globe award, three Emmy awards and the respect of a host of fellow stars. He lived one of the biggest ironies of show business; shy and soft-spoken off screen, with a bombastic, game-changing impact on the acting world and television itself.