According to the Taormina Film Festival, he was on his way to the film festival where he was expected Thursday. He had been expected to participate in an onstage conversation with Italian director Gabriele Muccino on Saturday at the Sicilian festival.
Gandolfini’s imposing screen presence was the driving force in establishing “The Sopranos” as the most influential TV show of the past generation. The actor was praised for his deft balance of the character’s violence and vulnerability, making the murderous mob boss a sympathetic figure that set the mold for the flawed anti-heroes that populate cable dramas today. Underscoring the show’s continuing influence, “Sopranos” was voted the best-written series of all time in a recent Writers Guild of America survey.
Gandolfini had a long career in movies, TV and on stage before he inhabited Tony Soprano. But it was the role created by David Chase of the mob boss who decides to see a psychiatrist to deal with his emotional issues that catapulted him into mega-stardom. Balding and beefy, Gandolfini was not conventionally handsome but became a sex symbol through the show’s immense popularity.
“Jimmy was the spiritual core of our ‘Sopranos’ family, and I am stunned at this devastating loss. He was a great talent, but an even better man,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, who greenlit “Sopranos” in his previous role as head of programming and CEO of HBO.
Chase’s script for “Sopranos” famously bounced around Hollywood in development for years before landing at HBO. But it took an actor of Gandolfini’s talent to breathe life into his character, particularly through his one-on-one therapy sessions with the counselor played by Lorraine Bracco.
“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. He was 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,” HBO said in a statement.
The “Sopranos” actor appeared recently in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and Chase’s period rock ‘n’ roll feature drama “Not Fade Away.” He had been working on Fox Searchlight’s “Animal Rescue,” now in post-production, as well as HBO limited series “Criminal Justice” as well as CBS show “Taxi 22.” He served as exec producer on docus “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” and “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” as well as on HBO’s miniseries “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
“It was such an honor to work with Mr. Gandolfini and nothing but a pleasure to see him perform. He was one of the greatest. I’m so sad and thinking about his family. I wanted to make him proud with the movie we made together and now it will be in his loving memory,” said “Animal Rescue” producer Michael Roskam.
Gandolfini generally kept out of the spotlight and rarely courted media attention. But he was a vocal advocate of wounded military veterans, and used his fame to draw attention to the 2007 docu “Alive Day Memories,” which recounted incredible stories of survival from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2011, he drew praise for his role as a pioneering reality TV producer in HBO’s Loud family telefilm “Cinema Verite,” directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.
“Jim was an icon, and anyone who had the pleasure to spend ten minutes with the man understood why. His talent was bigger than life, and so was his generosity to both directors and fellow actors. We’re devastated for his family, and heartbroken that we’ll never get a chance to work with him again,” Pulcini and Berman said.
Gandolfini had six Emmy lead drama actor nominations as well as a Golden Globe for his work in the “Sopranos,” which ended in 2007. He first broke through in movies as hit man Virgil in “True Romance,” and went on to appear in films including “Mr. Wonderful,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Get Shorty.” Among his other film roles were “Crimson Tide,” “Night Falls on Manhattan,” “She’s So Lovely” and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”
“Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply. He and his family were part of our family for many years and we are all grieving,” said longtime Gandolfini managers Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders.
Born in Westwood, New Jersey, his mother was born in the U.S. but raised in Italy and his father was born in Borgotaro, Italy. He attended Rutgers U. and became interested in acting when he accompanied his friend Roger Bart to an acting class.
In 1992, he starred in ”On the Waterfront” on Broadway for six months, and returned to the stage in 2009 in “God of Carnage.”
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, a son and a baby daughter.
(Pat Saperstein and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.)