To loyal fans, he was Tony

James Gandolfini, the Emmy Award-winning actor who shot to fame on the HBO drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano, a tough-talking, hard-living crime boss with a stolid exterior but a conflicted interior life, died Wednesday. He was 51.

Gandolfini's death was confirmed by HBO. He was traveling in Rome, where he was on vacation and was scheduled to attend the Taormina Film Festival. The cause of death was not immediately announced; an HBO press representative said that Gandolfini may have died from a heart attack, although other news reports said he had a stroke.

Gandolfini, who grew up in Park Ridge in Bergen County, N.J., came to embody the resilience of the Garden State on The Sopranos, which made its debut in 1999 and ran for six seasons on HBO.

In its pilot episode, viewers were introduced to the richly complicated life of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob kingpin who is suffering from panic attacks and begins seeing a therapist. Over 86 episodes, audiences followed Gandolfini in the role as he was tormented by his mother (played by Nancy Marchand), his wife (Edie Falco), rival mobsters, the occasional surreal dream sequence and, in 2007, a famously ambiguous series finale.

The series, created by David Chase, won two Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series, and Gandolfini won three Emmys for outstanding lead actor in a drama, having been nominated six times for the award.

HBO said of Gandolfini in a statement Wednesday, "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."

Chase, in a statement, called Gandolfini "one of the greatest actors of this or any time," and said, "A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."

James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961. His father was an Italian immigrant who held a number of jobs, including janitor, bricklayer and mason. His mother, Santa, was a high school cafeteria chef.

He attended Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, graduating in 1983. He drove a delivery truck, managed nightclubs and tended bar in Manhattan before becoming interested in acting at age 25, when a friend brought him to an acting class.

He began his movie career in 1987 in the low-budget horror comedy Shock! Shock! Shock! In 1992 he had a small part in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.

By the mid 1990s Gandolfini had made gangster roles a specialty, playing burly but strangely charming tough guys in films like True Romance (1993) and The Juror (1996). He had an impressive list of character-acting credits, but was largely unknown when Chase cast him in 1999.

"I thought it was a wonderful script," Gandolfini told Newsweek in 2001, recalling his audition. "I thought, 'I can do this.' But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye."

The Sopranos, which also became a springboard for television writers like Matthew Weiner (who would later create the AMC drama Mad Men) and Terence Winter (who later created the HBO series Boardwalk Empire), drew widespread acclaim for its detailed studies of the lives of its characters, and, at its center, Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano, who was tightly wound and prone to acts of furious violence. (He beat and choked another mobster to death for insulting the memory of his beloved racehorse, to name but one example.)

He went on to play a series of tough guys and heavies, including an angry Brooklyn parent in the Broadway drama God of Carnage, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009; the director of the CIA in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and a hit man in the 2012 crime thriller Killing Them Softly.

At the time of his death. Gandolfini was working on a new series for HBO called Criminal Justice, written by Richard Price.

Survivors include his wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini; a daughter, Liliana, born last year; and a teenage son, Michael, from his marriage to Marcella Wudarski, which ended in divorce.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Gandolfini said that he was not worried about being typecast and that he was being offered different kinds of roles as he aged.

"Mostly it's not a lot of that stuff anymore with shooting and killing and dying and blood," he said. "I'm getting a little older, you know. The running and the jumping and killing, it's a little past me."

Asked why he didn't appear in more comedies, he said, "Nobody's asked."

Information from the San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.

To loyal fans, he was Tony 06/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 1:09am]

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