James Gandolfini, former ‘Sopranos’ star, dead at 51

By Los Angeles Times

James Gandolfini, who rose to fame as the agonized mob boss on HBO’s groundbreaking drama “The Sopranos,” has died, the network confirmed late Wednesday.

tonyGandolfini, who was 51, was stricken during a stay in Italy. The cause of death was not immediately known but was initially attributed to either a heart attack or stroke.

On “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini played New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano, who alternated acts of mayhem with a visits to his psychiatrist.

He won three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the angst-ridden mob boss who visited a therapist and took Prozac while knocking off people in “The Sopranos,” which aired from 1999 to 2007.

In recent years, he had starred in several movies, including the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″ and “Killing Them Softly.”

The news of his death spread quickly. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tweeted: “James Gandolfini’s passing is an awful shock. He was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy.”

“He was just so good at the emotion. A very passionate man and a very, very tender man,” Matthew Warchus, who directed Gandolfini in the Broadway play “God of Carnage,” told CNN.

“I really loved him and admired him a great deal.”

Gandolfini was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961. His mother, Joann, was a school cafeteria worker, and his father, Michael, was a janitor, bricklayer and cement mason.

His Italian immigrant parents spoke Italian at home but Gandolfini, one of three children, never learned the language although, he later told interviewers, he always understood when they were angry with him.

After attending public schools in Westwood, he entered Rutgers University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1983. He worked a variety of jobs over the next several years, including stints as a bouncer, bartender and truck driver. He especially enjoyed bartending until, he told Newsweek in 2001, “the waitresses got together and compared notes.”

Acting didn’t cross his mind until he was 25 and a friend took him to a class at the illustrious Actors Studio in New York. It terrified him but he was intrigued. “I’d never been around actors before,” he told an interviewer. “I said to myself, ‘These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.’”

By the early 1990s he was landing parts, one of the earliest the role of Steve Hubbell in a Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and later joined its European tour.

He landed his first movie role in 1992 in director Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us.” His bulky physique and heavy-lidded eyes tended to earn him parts playing thugs, as in “True Romance” (1993), a crime thriller that starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.

In that movie, directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, Gandolfini throws a bloodied Arquette through a glass shower door. That performance brought him to the attention of David Chase, who was searching for an unknown or barely known Italian actor to play Tony Soprano.

When Gandolfini read the script, he told Vanity Fair in 2007, “I laughed my ass off. I was like,  This is really different and good, and odd.  I thought, I’ve never been the lead before. They’re gonna hire somebody else. But I knew I could do it. I have small amounts of Mr. Soprano in me. I was 35, a lunatic, a madman.”

Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah, and their daughter. He is also survived by a son from another marriage.

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