Sad news today, Bettys: James Gandolfini passed away yesterday in Rome, where he was vacationing as well as planning to attend the Taormina Film Festival. He was 51 years old. The cause of death has yet to be determined, but it is suspected he suffered a heart attack or a stroke; he is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, his two children, Lilian and Michael, and two sisters. UPDATE: It’s been confirmed that James suffered a heart attack.
A Jersey boy born and bred, James Joseph Gandolfini, Jr. was born in Westwood, NJ on September 18, 1961. His mother, Santa, was born in the US and raised in Naples, Italy, while his father, James Joseph Gandolfini, Sr., was a native of Borgotaro, Italy; as such, he spoke Italian at home with his family, and he regularly traveled to Italy as a child,
James grew up in Park Ridge; he graduated from Park Ridge High School in 1979, where he both played basketball and acted in school plays. He later earned a BA in Communication Studies from Rutgers University. It was at Rutgers that he met and became friends with future Broadway star Roger Bart. Upon moving to New York after he graduated, James worked as a bouncer, a club manager, and a bartender before Roger convinced him to come along with him to a Meisner technique acting class.
Although James had been working in the business for over a decade, it wasn’t until HBO’s The Sopranos debuted in 1999 that he became a household name. His first role was a part in a 1987 low-budget horror comedy called Shock! Shock! Shock!; he also made occasional appearances on the New York stage, including a 1992 Broadway adaptation of the classic film On the Waterfront and the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. By the mid-‘90s, he had made a name for himself playing a wide variety of tough, charming gangsters in films like True Romance, Get Shorty, and The Juror; he was still far from being a star, though, when he was cast as mob boss Tony Soprano—but it was a gamble worth taking Sopranos showrunner David Chase: James’ portrayal of Tony earned him countless accolades including a Golden Globe award, three Emmys, and five SAG awards (three for Best Actor and two for Best Ensemble) during the show’s six-season run.
Post-Sopranos, James continued to turn in one show-stopping performance after another, including roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly. He was nominated for a Tony award for his performance in the 2009 Broadway production of God of Carnage, and what was to be his final film, Animal Rescue, is due for release in 2014.
Said David Chase in a statement, “He was a genius. 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. For Deborah and Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. 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.”
HBO also expressed their grief at James’ passing, saying, “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. 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. 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.”
Below, stars react on Twitter to the loss of this legend: