James Gandolfini, Tortured ‘Sopranos’ Mob Boss Dies at 51

James Gandolfini, who portrayed the troubled and enigmatic mob boss with a double dose of family headaches in the HBO series “The Sopranos,” has died. He was 51.

He died yesterday while vacationing in Rome, the actor’s managers, Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders, said in an e-mailed statement. The cause was cardiac arrest, the Associated Press reported, citing Dr. Claudio Modini, head of the emergency room at Rome’s Policlinic Umberto I hospital. Gandolfini was admitted at 10:40 p.m. local time and pronounced dead 20 minutes later, Modini told AP.

A supporting actor for years, Gandolfini vaulted to fame in 1999 as Tony Soprano, the northern New Jersey mafia chieftain who sought counseling for panic attacks under the everyday pressures of suburban family life and the unique stresses of organized crime. The series contrasted his vulnerabilities as a son, husband and father with his brutality as a mob boss.

“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” HBO said in an e-mailed statement. “He was a 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.”

Trying out for “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini found himself attracted to Tony’s humor, the Record newspaper of New Jersey reported in 1999.

Tony is “a piece of work,” Gandolfini said, according to the newspaper. “When I first read it, I was laughing very hard. I love the humor of it. I love the strangeness. I love that he’s off balance. All these guys in Mafia movies are portrayed as if they know exactly what they do. But he’s just bumbling along.”

Abrupt End

The series finale, which aired on June 10, 2007, and drew 11.9 million viewers, left fans to ponder Tony’s fate. In the last scene, as the Soprano family gathered for a family meal at a restaurant, the screen suddenly went black -- a sign, some said, that Tony had been rubbed out by one of his many accumulated enemies.

Series creator David Chase offered no additional clarity. “I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting or adding to what is there,” Chase said in an interview published in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger.

Gandolfini’s role on “The Sopranos” won him a Golden Globe and three Emmy awards during the show’s six seasons from 1999 to 2007. The series was twice awarded Emmys for outstanding drama.

“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.’”

Club Bouncer

James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born on Sept. 18, 1961, in Westwood, New Jersey, the only boy among three children of James Sr., head custodian at one Catholic high school, and his wife Santa, a cafeteria manager at another.

Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1983 with a degree in communications.

He gave acting a try only after spending several years as a nightclub bouncer and manager in Manhattan, Time magazine reported in a 1999 profile. A tour of Scandinavia with a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” led to work in New York theater, followed by parts in films including “Get Shorty” and “Crimson Tide” (both 1995).

It was his role as a modern-day gangster on HBO, Time Warner Inc.’s pay-TV network, that lifted him from the relative obscurity of minor roles to fame playing a more complicated character who routinely cheated on his wife, bumped off disloyal captains and confessed his fears to a therapist played by Lorraine Bracco.

Statehouse Fan

HBO’s promotion of the show’s debut season featured an image of Gandolfini-as-Soprano, arms crossed, with the words, “Meet Tony Soprano. If one family doesn’t kill him, the other family will.”

The show’s depiction of Italian-Americans, and of their state, spurred complaints over the years from a handful of New Jersey politicians. Governor Chris Christie, who was U.S. attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, wasn’t among them. In a statement last night, he said Gandolfini was “a true Jersey guy. I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically.”

“The Sopranos” burnished the pay cable network’s reputation for innovative programming. Airing on Sunday nights, the show was frequent water-cooler talk on Monday mornings.

Gandolfini talked openly of struggling to adjust to life after Tony Soprano. According to a 2012 Associated Press article, he said he didn’t regain himself as an actor until he starred in “God of Carnage” on Broadway in 2009.

Latest Roles

“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” Gandolfini said, according to AP.

His recent film work included playing the image-conscious mayor of New York in the 2009 remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” and former CIA Director Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012).

Gandolfini had finished filming “Animal Rescue,” a crime drama about a lost pit bull produced by Chernin Entertainment and News Corp.’s Fox Searchlight Pictures, according to IMDB.com, an industry website. The picture is scheduled for a 2014 release. He was also cast in the as-yet unreleased BBC TV series “Criminal Justice.”

Gandolfini had a son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski. That marriage ended in divorce. He married Deborah Lin in 2008, and their daughter, Liliana, was born last year.

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