LOS ANGELES — James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of a brutal, emotionally delicate mob boss in HBO’s “The Sopranos” helped create one of TV’s greatest drama series and turned the mobster stereotype on its head, died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51.
Mr. Gandolfini died in Rome, where he was on vacation, the cable channel and his managers said in a joint statement. He also was scheduled to attend the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily. The cause of death was not announced; HBO said Mr. Gandolfini may have died from a heart attack, although other news reports said he had a stroke.
“He was a genius,” said “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.”
Mr. Gandolfini, who won three Emmy Awards for his role as Tony Soprano, worked steadily in film and on stage after the series ended. He earned a 2009 Tony Award nomination for his role in the Broadway production of “God of Carnage.”
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Joe Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore on the HBO drama, said he was shocked and heartbroken. “Fifty-one and leaves a kid; he was newly married. His son is fatherless now … It’s way too young,” Gannascoli said.
Mr. Gandolfini’s performance in “The Sopranos” was indelible and career-making, but he refused to be stereotyped as the bulky mobster who was a therapy patient, family man and apparently effortless killer.
In a December 2012 interview with The Associated Press, a rare sit-down for a man who avoided the spotlight, he was upbeat about a slew of smaller roles after the blackout ending in 2007 of “The Sopranos.”
“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” he said. “I like them. I like the way they’re shot; they’re shot quickly. It’s all about the scripts — that’s what it is — and I’m getting some interesting little scripts.”
He played Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama “Zero Dark Thirty.” He also worked with Chase for the 1960s period drama “Not Fade Away,” in which he played the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick’s crime flick “Killing Them Softly,” he played an aged, washed-up hit man.
There were comedies such as the “In the Loop,” and the drama “Welcome to the Rileys.” He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in “Where the Wild Things Are.”
James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961, and grew up in Park Ridge. His father was an Italian immigrant who held a number of jobs, including janitor, bricklayer and mason. His mother, Santa, was a high-school lunch lady. He attended Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, graduating in 1983 with a degree in communications.
He drove a delivery truck, managed nightclubs and tended bar in Manhattan before becoming interested in acting at age 25, when a friend brought him to an acting class. He began his movie career in 1987 in the low-budget horror comedy “Shock! Shock! Shock!” In 1992 he had a small part in the Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.
By the mid-1990s he had made gangster roles a specialty, playing burly but strangely charming tough guys in films like “True Romance” and “The Juror.” He had an impressive list of character-acting credits but was largely unknown to the public when Chase cast him in “The Sopranos” in 1999.
He was exceptionally modest, describing himself as “a 260-pound Woody Allen.”
In past interviews, cast mates had far more glowing descriptions. “I had the greatest sparring partner in the world; I had Muhammad Ali,” said Lorraine Bracco, who, as Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, went one-on-one with Mr. Gandolfini in their therapy scenes. “He cares what he does and does it extremely well.”
Mr. Gandolfini said he turned to acting as a way to get rid of anger. “I don’t know what exactly I was angry about,” he said.
Survivors include his wife, Deborah Lin; a daughter, Liliana, born last year; and a teenage son, Michael, from his marriage to Marcella Wudarski, which ended in divorce.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.