Some shocking and heartbreaking news at the end of the day today, as HBO have confirmed that three-time Emmy winner and three-time SAG winner James Gandolfini, best known for playing mobster Tony Soprano in the acclaimed series “The Sopranos,” has passed away from a stroke at the age of 51. He’s survived by his wife Deborah Lin and a teenage son from a previous marriage.
Born in 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey to Italian parents, Gandolfini was a Rutgers grad who worked as a bartender, bouncer, and club manager before coming to acting through his friend Roger Bart. He made his screen debut in 1987’s “Shock! Shock! Shock!” before small roles followed in Tony Scott‘s “The Last Boy Scout,“ Sidney Lumet‘s “A Stranger Among Us” and most memorably, Scott and Quentin Tarantino‘s “True Romance.” Larger and larger parts followed, usually as tough guys in heavies, in major movies including “Terminal Velocity,” “Crimson Tide,” “Get Shorty,” and “Night Falls On Manhattan,” along with a turn in the made-for-TV remake of “12 Angry Men.”
But it was in 1999 that Gandolfini landed his defining role: conflicted, angst-ridden mobster in David Chase‘s HBO series “The Sopranos.” When the show began, HBO was still somewhat fledgling when it came to drama, but that changed almost immediately; the series, which ran for six seasons, was hugely acclaimed, and laid the path to everything from “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” to “Mad Men” and “Game Of Thrones.” And indeed, Gandolfini’s funny, terrifying, warm, chilling, moving, and generally titanic performance is the forefather of every cable TV anti-hero who’s followed since. Don Draper, Walter White, and Nucky Thompson simply wouldn’t exist without him, and It might be the greatest performance ever given on television.
The show, and the performance, took Gandolfini from character actor to household name, winning him three Primetime Emmys for Best Actor in a Drama Series, and three SAG awards for the same. It also led to more prominent movie roles. First, he stole the show as a gay hitman with a lovely performance in “The Mexican,” swiftly followed by an appearance for the Coen Brothers in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and an unusually sympathetic villain in “The Last Castle.”
Once the series ended — in unforgettably ambiguous fashion — in 2007, Gandolfini retained his relationship with HBO, producing two documentaries on veterans, “Alive Day: Home From Iraq,” and “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” and later, the HBO movie “Cinema Verite” (before his death, he’d shot a pilot for a new project for the network, “Criminal Justice,” which had been picked up for a limited run miniseries).
But he also kept busy on the big screen, managing to steer clear of the kind of typecasting that defined his early career. In 2009, he played a Bloombergian mayor of NYC, reuniting with frequent collaborator Tony Scott, in “The Taking Of Pelham 123,” as well as delivering a hilariously foul-mouthed turn in Armando Iannucci‘s “In The Loop.” Perhaps best of all was a heartbreaking vocal-only turn as Carol in Spike Jonze‘s “Where The Wild Things Are.”
And 2012 saw him have an extraordinary year; the actor turned up as CIA chief Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty,” reunited with Sopranos creator David Chase for “Not Fade Away,” and gave one of his very best performances as an alcoholic hitman in “Killing Them Softly.” The silver lining, if there is one, is that we’ve still got some Gandolfini greatness to come: aside from the “Criminal Justice” pilot (the future of which is obviously up in the air at this point), the actor is in “Violet & Daisy” now playing in limited release, has the co-lead opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener in Nicole Holofcener‘s next film, and returned to the criminal world to star with Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in “Animal Rescue,” his last completed project.
The death of any actor is always sad, but at only 51, and with the actor seemingly still showing how impressive his powers were, it’s hard not to feel that we’ve been robbed by Gandolfini’s passing. But anyone who gives a performance like Tony Soprano (or many of his others) can’t ever be forgotten.