James Gandolfini Dead at 51

'Sopranos' star was revered for his nuanced performance as Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini, who brought a balance of intensity and vulnerability to his portrayal of conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano that made him among the most respected actors of his generation, died Wednesday in Rome. He was 51 and was believed to have suffered a heart attack.

SEE ALSO: James Gandolfini’s Unlikely Stardom

According to the Taormina Film Festival, he was on his way to the film festival where he was expected Thursday. He had been expected to participate in an onstage conversation with Italian director Gabriele Muccino on Saturday at the Sicilian festival.

Gandolfini’s commanding screen presence was the driving force in establishing “The Sopranos” as the most influential TV show of the past generation. The actor was praised for his deft juggling of the character’s violence and sensitivity, making the murderous crime lord a sympathetic figure that set the mold for the flawed anti-heroes that populate cable dramas today. Underscoring the show’s continuing influence, “Sopranos” was voted the best-written series of all time in a recent Writers Guild of America survey.

PHOTOS: James Gandolfini’s Most Memorable Roles

Gandolfini had an active career in movies, TV and on stage before he inhabited Tony Soprano. But it was the role created by David Chase of the New Jersey mob boss who decides to see a psychiatrist to deal with his emotional issues that catapulted him into mega-stardom. Balding and beefy, Gandolfini was not conventionally handsome but became a sex symbol through the show’s immense popularity.

“He was a genius. 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,” Chase said in a statement. “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.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For (wife) Deborah and (children) Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. 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.”

SEE ALSO: Hollywood Reacts to Gandolfini News on Twitter

Gandolfini later acknowledged that he was surprised to have landed the lead role, given his history as a supporting player. Others considered for Tony Soprano include Anthony LaPaglia. But Chase responded to Gandolfini’s naturalistic style and the authenticity he brought as a native son of New Jersey. Like the character, Gandolfini was known to have a prodigious appetite for eating and drinking.

Writer-director Steve Zaillian was an intimate of Gandolfini’s for years, working with the thesp before and after the “Sopranos” era. He directed Gandolfini in the 1998 drama “A Civil Action” and more recently the two pacted to produce a crime drama pilot for HBO, “Criminal Justice,” in which Gandolfini also appeared.

Zaillian noted that the “Sopranos” success never changed his old friend. He described Gandolfini as “honest, humble, loyal, complicated, as grateful for his success as he was unaffected by it, as respectful as he was respected, as generous as he was gifted.  He was big, but even bigger-hearted.”

“I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that,” Gandolfini said in Vanity Fair’s extensive oral history of “Sopranos” published in April 2012.

The suddenness of Gandolfini’s death devastated the “Sopranos” extended family of actors, creatives and executives at HBO. The show remains a staple of HBO’s suite of channels, and the cabler was scrambling Wednesday evening to put a tribute slate in front of episodes already scheduled to air.

SEE ALSO: James Gandolfini’s Bigscreen Life After Tony Soprano

“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. 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.  He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility,” HBO said in a statement.

“Jimmy was the spiritual core of our ‘Sopranos’ family, and I am stunned at this devastating loss. He was a great talent, but an even better man,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, who greenlit “Sopranos” in his previous role as head of programming and CEO of HBO.

“Jimmy was one of the most talented, authentic and vulnerable actors of our time. He was unorthodox and truly special in so many ways. He had the sex appeal of Steve McQueen or Brando in his prime as well as the comedic genius of Jackie Gleason. I’m proud to have been his friend and grateful for the extraordinary years I was lucky enough to work with him,” said Paramount chairman Brad Grey, who produced “Sopranos” through his Brillstein-Grey Television banner.

Chase’s script for “Sopranos” famously bounced around Hollywood in development for years before landing at HBO. But it took an actor of Gandolfini’s talent to breathe life into his character, particularly in the scenes depicting his one-on-one therapy sessions with the counselor Jennifer Melfi played by Lorraine Bracco.

“If you took the Melfi scenes away, you wouldn’t care about this man as much, or care about anything that was happening to him,” Gandolfini told Vanity Fair.

“We lost a giant today. I am utterly heartbroken,” Bracco said.

As much as “Sopranos” is remembered for its organized crime storylines, the show at heart revolves around Tony Soprano’s conflicts with his wife and children. His work with Edie Falco, who played Carmela Soprano, was routinely hailed for the honesty and intensity the pair brought to the screen. Like so many other cast members, Falco emphasized how much she admired Gandolfini as an actor and and as a person.

“He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words. I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10  years as his close colleague,” Falco said. “The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.”

After “Sopranos” ended its six-season run in 2007, Gandolfini limned a range of supporting roles in such pics as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” comedy “In the Loop” and Chase’s period rock ‘n’ roll drama “Not Fade Away.”

He had been working on Fox Searchlight’s “Animal Rescue,” now in post-production, as well as the HBO limited series “Criminal Justice” and the CBS comedy “Taxi 22.” He served as exec producer on docus “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” and “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” as well as on HBO’s miniseries “Hemingway & Gellhorn.” He developed “Criminal Justice” and numerous other projects as a producer through his Attaboy Films banner.

“It was such an honor to work with Mr. Gandolfini and nothing but a pleasure to see him perform. He was one of the greatest. I wanted to make him proud with the movie we made together and now it will be in his loving memory,” said “Animal Rescue” director Michael Roskam.

SEE ALSO: “The Sopranos” Closes Out Age of Mob Rule

Gandolfini generally kept out of the spotlight and rarely courted media attention. But he was a vocal advocate of wounded military veterans, and used his fame to draw attention to the 2007 docu “Alive Day Memories,” which recounted incredible stories of survival from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011, he drew praise for his role as a pioneering reality TV producer in HBO’s Loud family telefilm “Cinema Verite,” directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

“Jim was an icon, and anyone who had the pleasure to spend ten minutes with the man understood why. His talent was bigger than life, and so was his generosity to both directors and fellow actors. We’re devastated for his family, and heartbroken that we’ll never get a chance to work with him again,” Pulcini and Berman said.

Gandolfini had six Emmy lead drama actor nominations as well as a Golden Globe for his work in the “Sopranos.” He first broke through in movies as hit man Virgil in “True Romance,” and went on to appear in films including “Mr. Wonderful,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Get Shorty.” Among his other film roles were “Crimson Tide,” “Night Falls on Manhattan,” “She’s So Lovely” and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”

“Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply. He and his family were part of our family for many years and we are all grieving,” said longtime Gandolfini managers Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders.

SEE ALSO: Gandolfini on Kristen Stewart and “the mad ones”

A native of Westwood, New Jersey, his mother was born in the U.S. but raised in Italy and his father was born in Borgotaro, Italy; his parents spoke to him in Italian at home. He attended Rutgers U. and became interested in acting when he accompanied his friend Roger Bart to an acting class.

In 1992, he starred in “On the Waterfront” on Broadway for six months, and returned to the stage in 2009 in “God of Carnage.”

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin; two sisters; a son and a young daughter.

(Pat Saperstein and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.)

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  1. Maella says:

    A very very sad day -and he was great actor – I never missed an episode of the Sopranos and it was because of his great acting.

  2. ivo says:

    It very evident that we like him as an actor for all the reasons noted – however; lets reflect on this a little deeper – perhaps his final curtain call was to educate all those who admired him to become more healthy – we all know he was overweight and perhaps didn’t think twice about the nutritional value of his food intake. He like most people who have questionable food consumption brushed off advice he was given years earlier – eat better, lose some weight now he is dead. Wake up people – its not enough to lose weight you must take into account the nutritional value of the foods we consume and move over to a more plant based food diet. It is unfortunate the James Gandolfini did not wake up this morning….

    • Katerina says:

      Smoking is far worse than obesity. Obesity is bad for you but he was a cigar smoker too. The obesity issue has been hugely inflated as it were. And how do YOU know what caused his heart attack, or indeed what he ate? Stop being a vulture.

      • ivo says:

        A high fat/low nutrient diet and a lack of physical activity caused his heart attack – Cigar smoking did contribute to his premature death but I wouldn’t say that it was 100%. If you disagree with my conclusion that is your choice. The actor George Burns who always smoked cigars lived for 100 years (1896-1996)….

  3. Jo-Ann says:

    So sad, a great actor, loved him in the Sopranos.

  4. This is just so sad. :'( What a huge, huge loss for Hollywood. It’s also so terrible when someone dies young, especially someone who was so wonderful like he was. May he rest in peace.

  5. I like him also but you have to see the hole picture here. Look at his life he was a drinker, smoke and he was overweight and he may had TB also. All gives you a heart attack. He it to him self. Sorry but it’s the truth.

    • ivo says:

      It is sad though a great talent lost – I agree healthy food choices along with regular activity would have given him another 35-40 years.

  6. When one dies, others are left to admire what he has left behind; but I, for one, reflect upon the efforts that were made by him — tenacious efforts — to accomplish so much more. James Gandolfini, the producer, worked valiantly to bring the Marvin Gaye bio-pict, “SEXUAL HEALING” to the screen with Jesse L. Martin. Despite a 5-year concerted effort, that film completed principal photography just prior to Gandolfini’s death but without his participation as producer or co-star. He tried so hard…it’s how I’ll remember him, always.

  7. Dr. Val says:

    I’m heartbroken. I was watching “The Sopranos” last night on HBO, as I do every night (I am a recent convert to the show because I only recently began getting HBO). It was season 5, episode 3 — “Where’s Johnny?” The ending was particularly poignant, with Tony and Uncle Joon sitting on the couch … Tony wrestling with his relationship with Joon and asking, “Don’t you love me?” The question (as loyal viewers know) was answered by silence and tears. I, too, teared up. I glanced at my husband who likewise was fighting back his emotions. Transfixed, we lingered through the ending credits, the power of that last moment reverberating still. Strange, too, because I usually don’t remain until the very end. Suddenly, a message comes on the screen.”HBO mourns the loss of James Gandolfini, a beloved member of the HBO family.” I’m sure I let out an audible moan. In such times, we typically send thoughts and prayers to just family and friends. But I send these to all of us who have been so moved by the work of this incredible actor and who will feel his loss profoundly.

  8. Jim gets so much credit for his role as Tony Soprano, but I think his best work was Doug Riley, opposite Kristen Stewart as Allison, in “Welcome to the Riley’s.” If you have not seen this film, do so as a tribute to Jim. You will be touched by his performance.

  9. Bonnie says:

    James Gandolfii was a rare breed of actor/man. Few like him come along very often. He embraced his roles so naturally becoming the character entirely, yet never gave the impression that he was acting. His essence as a man came through every time however. You just HAD to know what a good person he was altogether. I will miss him. His life was short but he definitely left a long lasting impression on all of us. Heartfelt love and sympathy to all who loved him.

  10. Debbie Lamb says:

    I am a huge fan of the Sopranos and of James Gandolfini. I was sadden by his unexpected passing. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. Rest in Peace James “Tony Soprano”
    Gandolfini. Debbie from Dacula, Georgia

  11. larry says:

    So tragic. If you loved the show, google “Sopranos Autopsy”

  12. marno76 says:

    Caro James, mi hai fatto grande compagnia con la tua presenza scenica nelle serate trascorse solitarie sul divano a vedere i Soprano. Mi sono affezionato a te come ad un amico. Grazie della tua bravura, che dolore non potere vederti più recitare. Aprirò la mio migliore bottiglia per brindare alla tua salute. L’eterno riposo ti doni il Signore, riposa in pace. Amen.

  13. Frances says:

    Really a big loss. My feelings are with the family.

    R.I.P. Mr. Gandolfini

  14. Debbie says:

    My sympathy to his family and friends. R.I.P. Mr. Gandolfini :(

  15. Derek derochers says:

    The greatest show ever because of him. Forever remembered. Deepest sympathy to his wife, kids, friends and family. Too soon!

  16. May his soul rest in peace. We lost one of the greatest actors of all the time.
    – Rainer Proksch (http://mconception.com/blog/)

  17. Julie Gordon says:

    An inspirational actor who left us too soon. His star will shine on.

  18. Shane says:

    RIP James Gandolfini. Tony and The Sopranos were one of my favorite characters and series EVER!

  19. He was pure and natural…biig lost Rip.

  20. Umang says:

    RIP JAMES GANDOLFINI…..

  21. Mary Ann says:

    Condolences to the family of James Gandolfino. The world lost a great actor today.

  22. Rainer says:

    May his soul rest in peace. One of the greatest actors of all the times.

  23. Dennis says:

    I was very shocked at the news of Mr. Gandolfini’s passing at 51.

    Most of us will eventually pass on and no one will know about it , save family and friends.
    But for James he shall be remembered and seen in the many films and of course The Soprano’s so in this regard he has achieved a form of immortality.

    My condolences to his wife and daughter , also his son from a previous marriage.
    I guess no one knows how much time we have but James made his mark in the years he was with us.

  24. Massimo Sileoni says:

    James, I will miss your face where we can read the pain and the humanity that was (alas it was) a typical trait of italian people. Who knows why an unscrutable destiny made you end your life in the land of your ancestors.
    Massimo Sileoni from Italy

  25. I’m still in shock with this news, so tragic, Love all of his work, his daughter is just a baby, so very sad, founbd his wife Deborah Lin’s bio here http://enewsdaily.net/miva/breaking-news/deborah-lin-gandolfini-james-gandolfinis-wife/

  26. angelo marchetti says:

    Ciao Toni , voglio dirti soltanto che sei grande , e che ci hai inorgoglito con la tua italianita’ ed il tuo modo di fare ,che si rispecchia in noi italiani potrei scrivere pagine ,ma mi fermo qui . riposa in pace amico mio te lo meriti ! e non a caso sei tornato nel tuo paese che ti ama !!! CIAO TONI ,CIAO PAISA’ !!!!

  27. simlmx says:

    great actor.

  28. eLisabetta DiMauro says:

    Ohh noooo!! What a sudden shock!!! He was great! As an actor, he was so full of Spirit !! His characters were all so believable and funny to me! I loved him in The Mexican with Julia Roberts! Goodness, I just saw this news, and thought, ‘it’s just a prank, it can’t be’…
    oh, bless you, all, this is sad news… I surely thought I would see him for many more years! This is tragic, at 51! Sending LOVE and Light to the family!

  29. Rhonnda REA says:

    —Condolences to family and friends,….he was too young for a heart attack, but, hopefully his passing will make others think about their own level of health and do something constructive about it,…I know I will!!!

  30. Was very sad to hear that James passed away today. He was too young to go. He will be missed by his family, friends and co-stars and the world.
    My condolences to his family.

  31. Crystal Lite says:

    R.I.P. :(

  32. You were one great actor. Rest in peace, James. We’ve created an online memorial in your honor… http://www.thememorium.com/Memorials/james-gandolfini

  33. Lanre Falana says:

    What a great loss. May Almighty God bless his soul. I admire him alot on screen. I pray to God to give his family the fortitude to bare this huge loss.(Amen)

  34. Crystal Bess says:

    Everyone loves James Gandolfini. His sudden death is the saddest news I heard in years. My heart is broken. Noone can replace Gandolfini. He was suppose to play the old guy in our future gagster/mob movies. God Bless.

  35. Patricia albano says:

    Soprano’s was and is my favorite of all times. I watch it on direct tv at least twice a day. God bless James and his wife and children. We lost a great good looking actor. I want to end with a prayer in my heart and he will be forever missed.:-(

  36. Janice Pounders says:

    I am so sorry for the family and friends of this wonderful man , actor father , husband .and I myself that never got a chance to meet him. I have watched every Soprano episode. I feel like he is family I will always think and pray for him he is loved and missed. He always reminded me of my dad who passed in 2006 a Brooklyn born New Yorker god bless ..,

  37. Jude Gutierrez says:

    Will live forever on my .t.v..And,in my heart.Thank you for sharing your talents.You will be missed.

  38. Donna Brothers says:

    Devastating. What a huge loss for the whole world. Mr. Gandiolfini reminded me of my father. He earned my respect the first time I ever saw him. That respect did not take long to turn into a love for a great actor! My deepest sympathy to those he loved!

  39. Silviu says:

    RIP James.
    I will miss you

  40. david schoen says:

    You are an inspiration to every actor out there I personally loved the man and he will be remembered and missed James have a great trip to heaven and you will be missed by millions and I have to say especially me. R I p

  41. virginia de vera says:

    rest in peace JG. we’ll see you in the Resurrection Morning.

  42. Dawn Jackson says:

    RIP

  43. Kim says:

    I am devastated…he was my favorite of all time. RIP Tony.

  44. Debi Maas says:

    I loved watching Jim (tony)! He had a personality on screen most women admired and loved. He will be truly missed!

  45. pango says:

    I am so sorry to here this news……

  46. Al Tucci says:

    So sorry to here this news..such a great actor and wounderful gentleman. My condolences to his family. Surly will be missed ..
    One of your fans Al Tucci

  47. Dean Fortunato says:

    Its very sad a young talented man like him to go so early. He will be missed my heart and prayers go out to his family. RIP James Gandolfini wont be one like you again.

  48. moira Halward says:

    We have just lost one of the best performers of all time sorry to see him go.

  49. thereSA says:

    I know this may seem odd, but I swear I feel like I lost a family member!

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