James Gandolfini, the 51-year-old actor who played Tony Soprano in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” died on Wednesday while on vacation in Rome:

“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.”. . .

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, N.J., the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.

While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exceptionally modest and obsessive — he described himself as “a 260-pound Woody Allen.”

In past interviews, his cast mates had far more glowing descriptions to offer.

“I had the greatest sparring partner in the world, I had Muhammad Ali,” said Lorraine Bracco, who, as Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, went one-on-one with Gandolfini in their penetrating therapy scenes. “He cares what he does, and does it extremely well.”

After earning a degree in communications from Rutgers University, Gandolfini moved to New York, 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.

Gandolfini’s first big break was a Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” where he played Steve, one of Stanley Kowalski’s poker buddies. His film debut was in Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992).

Associated Press

No cause of death was given.

Gandolfini was best known for “The Sopranos,” but since the show ended in 2007, he had been enjoying other kinds of characters:

He was now eager to set aside the mobster roles that made him famous: “I’m getting older, too. I don’t want to be beating people up as much.” He promised that his thug role in “Killing Me Softly” would be “the last nail in the coffin” — and indeed, he had already moved away from the stereotype. He played Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty” and was going to play a rumpled jailhouse lawyer in HBO’s “Criminal Justice.”

The Reliable Source

Joel Achenbach asks readers whether Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was one of the best television characters of all time:

James Gandolfini was an actor you couldn’t take your eyes off of, even if he was just eating a plate of spaghetti. He had all that coiled intensity. Usually he’d just finish eating his meal and then stagger off to a chair, but you knew that there was a slight chance he’d shoot someone — or worse. He had that knack for body disposal. . .

I always assumed there would be a Sopranos movie, or some king of reunion of the gang of loveable, if psychopathic, mobsters, but that’s not going to happen.The show had an extraordinary ensemble cast, but everything orbited around the big man. . .

Who are the top 5 TV characters of all time? I am confident that Tony Soprano belongs. My own list would skew very old, and would include Lucy Ricardo, Archie Bunker and Spock. Homer Simpson? Where do you rank Cliff Huxtable and Hawkeye Pierce? I know there are those who would argue for more recent characters like Don Draper or Michael Scott.


James Gandolfini, best known for his role as Tony Soprano in TV series 'The Sopranos', has died in Italy at age 51. (Associated Press)