James Gandolfini, the Emmy-winning actor who swaggered his way to fame as the murderous, clinically depressed mob boss on HBO's groundbreaking drama "The Sopranos," died Wednesday on vacation in
The cause was a
The "Sopranos," recently named the best TV show of all time by the
His character alternated acts of mayhem, infidelity and fierce family loyalty with anguished visits to his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, portrayed by Lorraine Bracco. His regular haunt was the Bada Bing, a strip club that frequently served as a base for his underworld enterprises.
In Gandolfini's hands, a potentially unsympathetic and unrelatable character became a kind of post-modern Everyman, even down to his troubled relationship with suburban wife Carmela, played by Edie Falco.
He won three
"He was a genius,"
The mob series, along with the comedy
That success led to an explosion in original series for basic cable networks, a trend that continues with such Soprano-like antiheroes as tortured cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on FX's
Gandolfini was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961, to working-class parents of Italian American stock. His father was a bricklayer who later became a high school custodian; his mother worked in a cafeteria at the same school.
His 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. He retained a strong sense of his Italian roots into adulthood, he later said.
As the first-born male child of ambitious immigrants, he faced intense parental pressure to attend college, a notion he initially resisted. He earned a bachelor's degree in communications in 1983 from
"My mother beat it into me, 'You're going, you're going,' " he later recalled. He finally relented and on his first night at Rutgers strolled into a keg party. "I thought, 'What was I fighting for?' " he later joked.
His ultimate choice of a profession was inspired by the 1970s films he grew up with, including "Mean Streets," Martin Scorsese's breakthrough feature about a young Mafia soldier Charlie (
"I saw that 10 times in a row.… I just sat there," Gandolfini recalled years later on Bravo's
But success was slow in coming. During his mid-20s, he was persuaded by
In one exercise, the instructor asked him to pretend he was threading a needle. Gandolfini discovered, to his dismay, that he was unable to do it in front of the class. "I was scared to death. I was shaking," he later recalled.
But he found that the exercises were key to shedding self-consciousness and growing as a performer, allowing him "to get up in front of people and get up and just make a fool of yourself," as he later put it.
For years he languished in supporting roles but found success on Broadway in the early 1990s in productions of
His first major film role was 1993's "True Romance," an offbeat crime caper written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott. He played a smiling hit man named Virgil who, in perhaps the most memorable scene, savagely beats a prostitute in a motel room. The scene took five days to film, he later recalled.
But it was his performance as Tony Soprano that made him a bona fide star, not to mention one of the highest-paid actors on TV. By the end of the HBO show's run, he was earning at least $1 million per episode, according to published reports.
After the show ended its run — with a controversial, opaque finale that continues to inspire debate to this day — Gandolfini resisted any temptation to play another mafioso. "I want to get away from the violence a little bit, because it is starting to bother me personally," he said.
He returned to the theater, winning a Tony nomination for his role in Yasmina Reza's 2009 "God of Carnage." He also reeled off a succession of character parts in prestigious films, including last year's
He recently shot an HBO pilot, "Criminal Justice," and completed parts in two as-yet-unreleased movies, a romantic comedy "Enough Said" and the crime drama "Animal Rescue."
His survivors include his wife, Deborah Lin, whom he married in 2008; their daughter, Liliana; a son, Michael, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; and two sisters, Leta Gandolfini and Johanna Antonacci.
Gandolfini could occasionally be at a loss for words when it came to explaining what made his performances work.
"Standing in public in other people's clothes, pretending to be someone else," he once said. "It's a strange way for a grown man to make a living."
MORE ON HIS LIFE AND DEATH:
Times staff writers Elaine Woo, Steven Zeitchik, Meredith Blake, Greg Braxton, Yvonne Villarreal and correspondent Tom Kington contributed to this report.