Actor who played sympathetic gangster role

James Gandolfini: 1961-2013

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini


James Gandolfini, the burly actor best known for his portrayal of conflicted New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, died on Wednesday while on holiday in Italy. He was 51.

Since The Sopranos ended its six-season run in June 2007, Gandolfini appeared in a number of big-screen roles, including Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the crime drama Killing Them Softly.

At the time of his death, he had been working on an upcoming HBO series, Criminal Justice, and had two films due out next year.

Gandolfini began his career as a stage actor in New York and went on to earn a Tony nomination for his role in the original 2009 Broadway cast of the black comedy God of Carnage.

He shared Tony Soprano’s Italian-American heritage and New Jersey roots, but he was known for a reserved demeanour off-camera and generally shied away from publicity.

Mobster remoulded
In the HBO series, Gandolfini created a gangster different from any previously seen in American television or film. He was capable of killing enemies with his own hands but was prone to panic attacks. He loved his wife, Carmela, played by Edie Falco, and was a doting father, but had a string of affairs. He regularly saw a therapist, portrayed by Lorraine Bracco, to work out his anxiety problems and issues with his mother.

By the start of the show’s final season, Gandolfini suggested he was ready to move on to more gentle roles once his television mobster days were over.

“I’m too tired to be a tough guy or any of that stuff anymore,” he said. “We pretty much used all that up in this show.”

The programme, which earned Gandolfini three Emmy Awards as best lead actor in a drama series, was considered by many critics the finest drama to have aired on US television.

It was a major factor in establishing HBO, a pay-cable network once focused on presentations of feature films, as a powerhouse of original dramatic television and in shifting the kind of sophisticated storytelling once reserved for the big screen to television.

The show won the Emmy as best drama series in 2004 and again in 2007 after its final season.

The series concluded with a final episode that strongly suggested Tony was about to be murdered before abruptly ending mid-scene, cutting from a shot of Gandolfini’s face to a blank screen.

The Soprano role paved the way for a parade of popular prime-time shows built around profoundly flawed characters and anti-heroes, from Dexter and Breaking Bad to Mad Men and Nurse Jackie.

Gandolfini is due to appear on the big screen next year, playing the love interest of comic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the film Enough Said and a role in a New York crime drama called Animal Rescue. Both are set for US release by News Corp-owned studio Fox Searchlight.

Truck driver
Gandolfini preceded his career as a performer by working as a truck driver, bouncer and nightclub manager in New York City before he went to an acting class with a friend and got hooked.

“I’d also never been around actors before,” he told Time magazine, “and I said to myself, ‘These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.’”

Born in Westwood, New Jersey, he was raised in a working class, Italian-American family by a father who was a bricklayer and high school janitor and a mother who worked in a school cafeteria.

In an interview on the television programme Inside the Actors Studio, he said his parents spoke Italian in the home when they did not want the children to understand them.

“So they didn’t teach it to my sisters or myself,” he said.

He attended Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, graduating in 1983 with a degree in communications. He drove a delivery truck, managed nightclubs and tended bar in Manhattan before becoming interested in acting.

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, starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

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

‘A little more debonair’
“I thought it was a wonderful script,” he 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.”

Gandolfini had a son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski, whom he divorced in 2002. In 2008, he married model Deborah Lin, who gave birth to a daughter, Liliana, last year.