James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of a brutal, emotionally fragile mob boss in HBO's The Sopranos helped create one of television's greatest drama series and turned the mobster stereotype on its head, has died in Italy. He was 51.
In a statement, HBO called the actor a great talent and a gentle and loving person.
"He touched so many of us over the years with his humour, 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.
"He was a genius," said The Sopranos creator David Chase. "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.
"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."
Gandolfini played mob boss Tony Soprano in the groundbreaking series that aired from 1999 to 2007.
His performance was indelible and career-making, but he refused to be stereotyped in other roles as the bulky mobster who was a therapy patient, family man and cold-blooded killer. He won three Emmy Awards for the role.
The actor was in Italy to attend the 59th Taormina Film Festival when he died. He was scheduled to participate on Saturday in a festival event with Italian director Gabriele Muccino.
Gandolfini's managers, Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders, released a statement confirming his death.
"It is with immense sorrow that we report our client, James Gandolfini, passed away today while on holiday in Rome, Italy," they said.
"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."
Gandolfini once pointed out similarities between himself and Tony Soprano.
"I'm playing an Italian lunatic from New Jersey, and that's basically what I am," he said.
The humble actor didn't always enjoy being in the spotlight.
"My father always said a million times, 'We're peasants,"' Gandolfini told Rolling Stone in 2001.
"It's just a little odd for me, to get that slightly different treatment sometimes. And I'm uncomfortable with it ... I want nothing to do with privilege."
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair the actor said that he never expected to get the part of the mobster in the first place.
"I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy, not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that."
Earlier this month the Writers Guild of America picked The Sopranos as the best written television series.
Although the finale of the show with its breathtaking blackout ending drew some criticism, Gandolfini was happy with the plot.
"When I first saw the ending, I said, 'What the f...?' I mean, after all I went through, all this death, and then it's over like that? But after I had a day to sleep, I just sat there and said, 'That's perfect,"' he told Vanity Fair.
In a December 2012 interview with The Associated Press, Gandolfini said he gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger.
"I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he said.
"I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he said.
"I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much anymore."
Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey, the son of a building maintenance chief and a school cafeteria worker.
After earning a degree in communications, Gandolfini moved to New York City, where he worked as a bartender, bouncer and nightclub manager.
When he was 25, he joined a friend of a friend in an acting class, which he continued for several years.
His Broadway debut was in the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
Gandolfini's breakthrough role was his portrayal of Virgil the hitman in Tony Scott's True Romance, but the role that brought him worldwide fame and accolades was as complex Mafia boss Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.
Since The Sopranos ended its run in 2007, Gandolfini has appeared in big-screen roles, including the espionage thriller Zero Dark Thirty and the comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
At the time of his death, Gandolfini had been working on an upcoming new HBO series titled Criminal Justice.
Gandolfini leaves behind wife Deborah Lin, a former model whom he married in 2008 after they dated for two years.
The couple welcomed a daughter in October 2012.
He is also survived by teenage son Michael from his previous marriage to Marcy Wudarski.
- © Fairfax NZ News