LOS ANGELES – James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of a brutal, emotionally delicate crime boss in HBO’s “The Sopranos” was the brilliant center of one of TV’s greatest drama series and turned the mobster stereotype on its head, died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51.
Gandolfini died while vacationing in Rome, the cable channel and Gandolfini’s managers said in a statement. No cause of death was given.
“He was a genius,” said “Sopranos” creator David Chase. “Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.”
Gandolfini’s performance in “The Sopranos” was indelible and career-making and earned him three Emmy Awards.
But he refused to be stereotyped as the bulky mobster who was a therapy patient, family man and apparently effortless killer. Gandolfini worked steadily in film and on stage after the series ended.
In a December 2012 interview with the Associated Press, he was upbeat about a slew of smaller roles following the breathtaking blackout ending in 2007 of “The Sopranos.”
“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” Gandolfini said in the interview. “I like them. I like the way they’re shot; they’re shot quickly. It’s all about the scripts – that’s what it is – and I’m getting some interesting little scripts.”
He played Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama “Zero Dark Thirty.” He worked with Chase for the ’60s period drama “Not Fade Away,” in which he played the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. He earned a 2009 Tony Award nomination for his role in the celebrated production of “God of Carnage.”
Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, N.J., the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.
While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exceptionally modest and obsessive – he described himself as “a 260-pound Woody Allen.”
After earning a degree in communications from Rutgers University, Gandolfini moved to New York, where he worked as a bartender, bouncer and nightclub manager. When he was 25, he joined a friend of a friend in an acting class, which he continued for several years.
Gandolfini’s first big break was a Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” where he played Steve, one of Stanley Kowalski’s poker buddies.
Gandolfini and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year. The actor and his former wife, Marcy, have a teenage son, Michael.