Film and TV actor James Gandolfini has died at the age of 51 of a possible heart attack.
20 Jun 2013 - 9:51 AM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2013 - 9:51 AM

James Gandolfini, an actor who was immense in both screen presence and talent, has died at the age of 51. Best known for playing the conflicted and fascinating gangster Tony Soprano on the landmark television series The Sopranos, Gandolfini died of what is believed to be a heart attack while visiting Italy.

A native of New Jersey, Gandolfini enjoyed a long and vital film career, proving to be one of the modern era's great character actors. He graduated from goons to killers, tough guys to made men, and as an Italian-American it was hard to avoid being cast in mafia-based projects, but as the years passed Gandolfini took what could have been stock characters and invested them with insight and emotional depth.

The son of a bricklayer turned high school custodian father and a high school lunch lady mother, James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born on September 18, 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey. He was raised as a Roman-Catholic, spoke Italian at home, and grew up to attend Rutgers University, where he earnt a Bachelor of Arts degree and worked as a bouncer at a campus bar, displaying a duality that would later come to the fore on stage and screen.

As a young man in New York City he attended acting classes with a friend and soon began attending castings. By the early 1990s, Gandolfini was a hard to miss figure in group compositions, with a breakout turn in Tony Scott's True Romance as a contract killer who took philosophical pride and malevolent pleasure in his trade. A long, harrowingly violent scene with Patricia Arquette, scripted by Quentin Tarantino, made audiences (and casting directors) remember his name.

Roles in Angie, Crimson Tide, Get Shorty (as an ageing stuntman too gentle to be an enforcer), and A Civil Action followed, but the narrow aesthetics of the film business meant it was hard for Gandolfini to play the leading man. Film's loss was television's gain when The Sopranos debuted in January 1999 on the American cable network HBO.

By the end of the show's first season it was acclaimed, beginning what is now widely seen as a golden age for television drama. The show won 21 Emmy Awards – three to Gandolfini personally – among numerous accolades; earlier this month the Writer's Guild of America declared The Sopranos the best-written show in television history.

Gandolfini came to embody Tony Soprano, a man of so many contrasting elements that conflict, both within himself or with others. The show's creator, David Chase, made a show that spoke to common American values and ambitions, and then reflected them through the prism of a family man who heads a violent crime syndicate. The Sopranos could be riveting, funny or heartbreaking, and Gandolfini was at the centre of nearly everything that transpired, playing a mob boss secretly in therapy.

Gandolfini was on the cusp of 40 when the series began, and he had little time for the fame it brought him. By the time the show ended in June 2007 after 86 episodes, he had also turned in film performances that alternately played on his reputation (The Mexican) and disputed any residual mystique (The Last Castle). To his credit, he rarely looked to merely play variations on Tony Soprano.

Married twice, with a 13-year-old son from his first marriage and a six-month-old daughter from the second, Gandolfini came back to movies in 2009 and over the last four years supplied some indelible performances. He was caustically funny as an American general fighting in Washington's hallways in Armando Iannucci's transatlantic political black comedy In the Loop, while his voice work in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are revealed a beautiful tenderness.

Gandolfini's final performances were some of his very best: he was cynically suspicious and sharply amusing as CIA director Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, revisited his own upbringing to play the traditional New Jersey father of an aspiring 1960s rock musician in David Chase's Not Fade Away, and he raged against the fraying of his character's own masculinity and certainty opposite Brad Pitt as a broken-down hitman in Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.

Lost at far too young an age, Gandolfini leaves behind a completed but untitled film with independent writer/director Nicole Holofcener, and the first season of a forthcoming television drama, Criminal Justice. He saw himself as a working actor, from a humble background, and while his work on screen was powerful and evocative he never succumbed to the trappings of a deservedly great career.

“People don't know and they shouldn't know that you work incredibly hard as an actor,” Gandolfini told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “So in terms of a blue collar background, that matches up. But it is an odd way to make a living. Putting somebody else's pants on and pretending to be somebody else is occasionally, as you grow older, horrifying.”