James Gandolfini, who personified the New Jersey mobster in HBO's acclaimed series The Sopranos, died Wednesday, while on vacation in Rome, possibly of a heart attack, the network said. He was scheduled to appear this week at the Taormina Film Festival.
"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family," the network said in a statement. "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. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us."
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In a statement, Sopranos creator David Chase called Gandolfini, 51, "one of the greatest actors of this or any time," whose "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...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."
The beefy, balding actor, who played Mob patriarch Tony Soprano in the award-winning drama for six seasons, had film and theater roles, most notably in Quentin Tarantino's True Romance, when he was cast by Chase. The drama became the network's top-rated series and a pop-culture touchstone soon after premiering in 1999. He was a New Jersey native, with a thick accent, who had deep Italian roots; both his parents were born and raised there.
But Chase worried that viewers wouldn't embrace the show, telling USA TODAY in 2000 that he was pleasantly surprised by the accolades. "We wondered who was going to watch it. We thought critics would say, 'Another Mafia show? Please don't do this to us.' And as far as the general public was concerned, we thought they might find the goings-on too repellent."
It was Gandolfini who turned the repellent mob boss---who strangled a turncoat while visiting a college with his daughter Meadow--into a charismatic character. He won three Emmy Awards as best actor in the role, opposite Edie Falco's Carmela, and helped establish the network's reputation as a home for edgy, complex series.
"Our cast is very skilled at portraying humanity despite the inhumanity of some of the aspects of their characters' lives," he said later. "I think there's something about the humdrum aspect, the daily-grind aspect, that people find both funny and relatable."
As the show prepared to end its run in 2007 with an elliptical finale, Gandolfini had had enough of the iconic character. "It's like you take a sponge and you wring out the sponge and then, you know, it's empty," he told USA TODAY that year. "After a while you've been to too many of the same places, and it's time to explore something new."
Yet he continued his relationship with the network, producing a documentary about veterans of the Iraq War and last year's Hemingway & Gellhorn, and appearing in Cinema Verite, a movie about the making of An American Family, PBS' landmark reality series. He was also set to star in Criminal Justice, a new limited series. And he played the protagonist's dad in Not Fade Away, Chase's feature-film debut about a 1960s New Jersey garage band that was released last December.
Among other recent roles, he appeared in last year's Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
He is survived by wife Deborah Lin, and their daughter, Liliana. He also has a son, Michael, from his first marriage.
Gary Levin, USA TODAY
USA Today / Gannett