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. Kathleen Paroline says:

    I am so sad. I still watch Soprano re runs. My prayers to his family.

  2. Judy Thiel says:

    I’m shocked! He was Tony Soprano, We are so sadden by this loss.
    We will miss him dearly. God bless you James.

  3. Lori Edwards says:

    I was so sorry to hear of the death of James Gandolfini.His smile and his many quality films he had made , for such a young man.My family would get together, make great Italian dishes on Sunday night , to sit back and watch The Sapranos’. That sweet face will be missed. Like my Mother said, it’s like a family member had died. Our heartfelt thoughts are with his family… Lori Edwards Chatsworth, cal.

  4. marsha watson says:

    prayers going out to the family. he was a great actor.

  5. Eliza says:

    This guy was so overweight. Rather than being shocked by this news, I’m shocked he made it this long. He should have researched the dangers of coronary artery disease while he still had the chance. It’s unfortunate that he had such an unhealthy lifestyle and was so stubborn. It’s so selfish to leave your wife a widow and your children fatherless just because you want to eat cheeseburgers, steaks, and God-knows-what-else. Well, what can you expect; he was an American. Not a terrible actor, though!

  6. charlie says:

    He was a wonderful actor that any role he took on he made the character so believable u wish u could climb into the first TV and be part of the scene. I admire his life work and really wish he could have kept on amazing us with his wonderful personalities. HE WILL BE GREATLY MISSED. Sincerely Charlie

  7. Stephanie Minor says:

    Awesome actor..
    So sad to hear this news…a great load

  8. Jorge del valle says:

    I will missed this great actor I loved the sopranos and many of his movies.I’m 52 years old and, also know the importance of maintaining my blood pressure and seeing my cardiologist regularly.Don,t know his situation but maybe it was a freak accident unable to prevent.God be with you James gandolfini. Jorge del valley Kansas city mo.

  9. Pasquale says:

    What a shock. I met him several times upstate in Oneonta NY where he once was partner in a restaurant I was a chef at. He was a soft-spoken, kind man who always had a kind word to say about everyone. His warm compassionate nature will be sorely missed in this cynical world. Forgetaboutit! We will never forget you and all the joy you brought to us James! His acting accomplishments were only surpassed by his funny, nervous & quirky personality. My deepest condolences to his family and may God bless you Sir and may he take you into his loving arms and give you all that you deserve in the kingdom of heaven.

  10. Ed Man says:

    James was a class A actor and portrayed the roll of Tony Saprano brilliantly ! We are saddened and our heart goes out to his family ! He would have Contributed Much ! to the Acting world in the years to come. R.I.P. James

  11. Michele Burns says:

    I’m a true fan of Sopranos and James Gandolfini was my idol, I’m heartbroken by his passing. 51 is way to young to die. I will forever miss your talent, laugh and good looks. R.I.P James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini

  12. June Romans says:

    James Gandolfini, talented actor, will be greatly missed. It’s a sad day for Hollywood!

  13. DeAngelo says:

    James had so much soul! He was not only a very very gifted actor, but also a gentle and loving man. He always tried to help people any way he could. This is almost unbelievable that he has left us so way to soon. James would have surely won a academy award at some point, his talent as an actor was huge! Love ya Jimmy G…

  14. Eric H. says:

    Though I can’t say I knew the man personally, I can say that he brought much joy to me and many of the people I knew with his body of work. For that Mr. Gandolfini has my enduring gratitude. I hope his family and friends find comfort in the joy he brought to so many. One of my favorite quotes is “It is often we forget that the sadness we feel when a person dies is brought by the good memories we have of them.” Let those memories sustain those feeling grief and may you find comfort in the fact that his work has made him a monumental part of television history.

  15. Eric H. says:

    Though I can’t say I knew the man personally, I can say that he brought much joy to me and many of the people I knew with his body of work. For that Mr. Gandolfini has my enduring gratitude. I hope his family and friends find comfort in the joy he brought to so many. One of my favorite quotes is “It is often we forget that the sadness we feel when a person dies is brought by the good memories we have of them.” Let those memories sustain those feeling grief and may you find comfort in the fact that his work has made him a monumental part of television history.

  16. ciccio says:

    wow i can’t believe this , RIP Tonuzo

  17. josesph says:

    Looks like the mob got em so sad rip Tonn

  18. shaw adli says:

    sad day he.was.one.off best mob

  19. Leonard Boyak says:

    Enjoyed his acting,my prayers to his family.

  20. Ralph Rivera says:

    A sad lost , may he be with Christ and God with his family in this difficult time.

  21. Nina Bartoletta says:

    Such a shock and such a loss! A good man and wonderful actor/entertainer gone way too soon.

    Rest In Peace, Mr. Gandolfini.

  22. David says:

    A very sad day. Loved your acting. I will miss you. Thank you Tony.

  23. Bobby d says:

    A great man and a super talented actor. I’m a crushed by this news. My deepest condolences to his family.

  24. Mohamed Ali says:

    He was very good man I met him at LGA Airport in NY drive him home I was working with BLS company

  25. Kim says:

    RIP YOU WILL BE MISSED BY ALL PRAYERS GO OUT TO YOUR FAMILY I LOVED ALL YOU MOVIES SOPRANOS THE BEST (TONY)

  26. It was probably the gabagool.

  27. teresa a Snyder says:

    R.I.P. James gandolfini aka tony soprano..u were a great actor….

    • teresa a Snyder says:

      My prayers go out to his family. ..so sad da Sopranos will always be da best show in da world..bada bing..forget about it…

  28. Debbie says:

    My husband and I are in shock to hear the news about James Gandolfini. He was an incredible actor and we looked forward every week to see him on Sopranos. I understand he was a very wonderful person as well; how sad for his son and new wife/baby daughter. Our hearts go out to his family in the US and Italy. What a great loss.

  29. sally miller says:

    I am very sad to hear this news, he was a wonderful actor and a wonderful kind person and will be missed….

  30. Luke says:

    Wow. Fat kills.

    • Johnson says:

      This guy was so overweight. Rather than being shocked by this news, I’m shocked he made it this long. He should have looked into the dangers of coronary artery disease before living such an unhealthy lifestyle. Well what can you expect; he was an American. Not a bad actor, though!

  31. Moises Banda says:

    Awesome actor! Truly sad to see that he is gone. Sopranos is and will always be my favorite show. God bless him and his family. I guess we will never know if he dies in the diner that night

  32. sylvain rivard says:

    Wow unbelievable a great actor leaving this world R.I.P you will be missed

  33. Will says:

    Was just telling a coworker if he ever wanted to stay in and watch DVD after DVD and not be bored but totally hooked the sopranos is what you need to check out I always heard about them when they were on and winning all the awards but I didn’t have hbo so I thought I d get all caught up when they were just about done which I did awesome world to lose yourself in so sad when it concluded but I still get the DVD s back out and start all over again and again always hoping more would one day be made now its done for good and that sucks the characters on that show were so realistic with all they’re nuances but the best was James Gandofini s Tony Soprano the best the best the best epic iconic captivating what an impression that has been left so very sad today’s news is a very heavy downer a big lump in my throat I always thought one day more would come now its final never again wow

  34. L. Barrera says:

    :'( :'( YOU’LL BE MISS TONY

  35. Sandy Pennamacoor says:

    What a shock! I feel like I’ve lost a member of my family! Is there somewhere I can send a card? It’s important that his family knows how many people loved him.

  36. Richard Koppenal says:

    So sad. My son just saw him a couple of months ago in Park Ridge, N,J. at a steak house with his family He was a stand up guy and a family man.

  37. Kim says:

    He was a great actor, loved the sopranos! It is a great loss!

  38. A truly wonderful talent….an actor’s actor. He leaves behind a family and millions of grateful fans. Thank you James.

  39. What a great loss for all of us i really loved him he was such a great actor . You sure will be missed Tony … james R.I.P. and god bless his family .

  40. Vicky Wells says:

    I’m shocked and saddened – he was a favorite of mine. Too often we have to say “gone too soon”, but, he is. Prayers for his family, friends and loved ones.

  41. clickbobb says:

    He was taken way too soon..you’ll be sorely missed. Rest in peace Mr. Gandolfini.

  42. Karen says:

    He will be missed. Gone, but not forgotten.

  43. Susan van blarcom says:

    So sad.

  44. Tim says:

    RIP JG…way 2 early 4 an incredible actor!

    • Noel ONeill says:

      What a great loss and a shame that such a great man and actor who brought us great entertainment with his talent should pass away in the autumn of his life. I have followed his career for years in films like Angie and True Romance. He always brought a sense of both toughness and tenderness to all of his performances. I have a collection of Soprano episodes that I will revisit and silently mourn his passing.

  45. Fury137 says:

    Greatest Sympatht to the friends and family of James Gandolfini! A very talented actor is gone too soon. God Bless and RIP!

  46. A great Actor and icon of the film industry has died well before his time. How sad!
    Doris M. Aubinger-Hebert

  47. Alan bonner says:

    Rest in peace “Tony”.

  48. Al says:

    A very sad day. What a great actor. What great range. He will be remembered for his remarkable interpretations of the Soprano’s script and for the great body of work he left with us.

    Bless him and his family.

  49. Veronica Lodge says:

    A tremendous loss and a terrible shock.

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