LOS ANGELES – Award-winning US actor James Gandolfini, the burly star of classic TV mafia drama “The Sopranos,” died Wednesday aged 51 in Italy, triggering a flood of tributes from the acting world and beyond.
The New Jersey-born actor, who won three Emmys and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of troubled mob boss Tony Soprano on the popular cable TV series, suffered a heart attack or a stroke, HBO network officials said.
“It is with immense sorrow that we report our client, James Gandolfini, passed away today while on holiday in Rome, Italy,” said a joint statement from his California-based managers, Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders.
Gandolfini was in Italy for the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, where he was expected to participate in a roundtable discussion with Italian director Gabriele Muccino this weekend, according to celebrity website TMZ.
HBO, the cable TV channel on which “The Sopranos” aired, issued a statement saying: “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family.”
The actor had a long film and stage career before lending his heavy stature and big grin to play a depressed mafioso in “The Sopranos,” the celebrated series that ran from 1999 to 2007.
The series about the suburban mafia family was so popular it helped transform HBO into an powerhouse for quality original programs. This in turn led rival cable networks to produce their own edgy original series like “The Shield” on FX, and “Mad Men” on AMC.
Gandolfini was born on September 18, 1961. His parents were Italian immigrants — his father was a bricklayer, and later a high school custodian, while his mother worked in a cafeteria at the same school. His parents insisted that he go to college, and after some initial resistance Gandolfini graduated with a degree in communications from Rutgers University in 1983.
The futurre Tony Soprano began acting in the New York theater, making his Broadway debut in the 1992 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
His breakthrough role came as a hitman in Tony Scott’s 1993 “True Romance,” which he followed with “She’s So Lovely” (1997), “8MM” (1999), “The Mexican” (2001), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) and “In the Loop” (2009).
Last year, Gandolfini played former CIA director Leon Panetta in the Oscar-winning Osama bin Laden manhunt movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” while his last big-screen movie was “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
He was also a television producer for HBO, notably making the TV movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn” last year, a romantic drama with Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, whom he married in 2008, and their nine-month old daughter, Liliana, according to the Los Angeles Times. He also has a teenage son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski.
Tributes poured in from fellow actors and colleagues, including “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, who called Gandolfini a “genius.”
“Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that,” he said. “He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.”
From the acting world Steve Carrell, who starred with Gandolfini in this year’s comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” said it was “unbelievably sad news.”
Susan Sarandon called him “one of the sweetest, funniest, most generous actors I’ve ever worked with,” Jonah Hill said it was a “tragic loss,” and Mia Farrow called him “a great actor. Just great.”
HBO managers praised the actor as “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,” their statement added.