On this day in 2013, James Gandolfini, the actor best known for his role as New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano on the TV series “The Sopranos,” which debuted in 1999 and ran for six seasons, dies of a heart attack while vacationing in Rome, Italy. He was 51.
The son of working-class parents of Italian descent, Gandolfini was born on September 18, 1961, in Westwood, New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University in 1983. Afterward, he worked as a bartender and club manager in New York City, drove a delivery truck and studied acting. He made his film debut in 1987’s low-budget “Shock! Shock! Shock!” and went on to play supporting character roles in such movies as “True Romance” (1993), “Get Shortly” (1995) and “The Juror” (1996).
Gandolfini shot to stardom in the groundbreaking HBO drama “The Sopranos,” which centered on the violent, complicated Tony Soprano. Gandolfini’s portrayal of the brutal mobster, who lives in the New Jersey suburbs where he deals with ordinary family issues and sees a therapist after suffering from panic attacks, earned him three Emmy Awards for outstanding lead actor in a drama. Critics called Tony Soprano one of the greatest TV characters of all time, and by the show’s final season Gandolfini was being paid a reported $1 million per episode. Additionally, “The Sopranos” was credited with paving the way for edgier TV shows and flawed leading characters such as corrupt detective Vic Mackey on “The Shield,” school teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White on “Breaking Bad” and cynical, philandering adman Don Draper on “Mad Men.”
After “The Sopranos” ended in 2007, Gandolfini acted on Broadway, appeared in movies including “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and produced several documentaries about injured American military veterans. Following Gandolfini’s June 2013 death, the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, ordered all state government buildings to fly their flags at half-staff for a day in honor of the popular Garden State native.