James Gandolfini, who died suddenly at 51, WAS Tony Soprano.
For 86 episodes over six seasons on HBO, Gandolfini seared America’s eyeballs with his portrayal of a New Jersey mob boss plagued by self-doubt and petty problems, yet capable of staggering and ruthless violence.
With news of his death in Italy, the world lost not only an immensely talented actor, but also a cultural icon.
But success was a long time coming for Gandolfini. He began his career playing cold-hearted mob enforcers in films like “True Romance” and “Terminal Velocity.”
He kept getting cast as rough characters — and kept excelling in the roles.
“Admirers of film acting can see him in ‘Get Shorty,’ ‘In the Loop,’ ‘Welcome to the Rileys,’ ‘Killing Them Softly,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Not Fade Away’ and find an actor who could blend tough and tender like a master,” Peter Travers, host of ABC News’ “Popcorn,” wrote in a blog for Rolling Stone. “He didn’t talk much about acting. He just did it.”
By the time the world met Tony Soprano in 1999, Gandolfini had become a seasoned master at bringing to life the gray areas between crime and civility, evil and humanity.
But at first, he didn’t even think he was right for the role.
“I got the script and I read it and I was laughing out loud,” he told “Inside the Actors Studio.” “I said, ‘There is no way I will be able to do this.’ I really thought they would pick someone different than I … you know suave, good looking, Mafioso-type guy … you know, just somebody a little bit more leading-man type, basically.
“At one of the auditions, halfway through or in the middle of it, I said, ‘No I’m not doing this right, I didn’t prepare for this right, I’m not doing this right and I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to come back and do it for you again,'” he added. “And they said, ‘Oh OK,’ and they let me leave and redo it and come back. People want to see you, they want something from you. … Don’t try to please them, do it for yourself.”