James Gandolfini, star of HBO hit "The Sopranos," died Wednesday in Italy at 51. The actor, who played iconic mob boss Tony Soprano, was on vacation with his son and reportedly planned to attend the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. His death was first confirmed by HBO and his management team.
As Soprano, Gandolfini played a tough, modern-day "Godfather" with a troublesome family and common man problems. "The Sopranos" is considered one of the best television shows of all time and, in its 86 episodes, elevated HBO to the prestigious status it knows today. Gandolfini won three Best Actor Emmys for the role.
"He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time," David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," said in a statement Wednesday.
Gandolfini was born in Westwood, N.J., to an Italian immigrant father who floated from job to job and to a mother who worked in a high school cafeteria. After graduating Rutgers University in 1983, he worked various jobs in Manhattan before trying his hand at acting when he was 25.
Through the late 1980s and 1990s, Gandolfini acted in a number plays and films, some of his roles being mobster-type precursors to Soprano. However, it was not until Chase cast Gandolfini as the patriarch in "The Sopranos" in 1999 that the actor found the character that would make him a nationally known star.
Since "The Sopranos" went off the air in 2007, Gandolfini continued his acting career. He took on Broadway in the "Gods of Carnage" in 2009 and played CIA director Leon Panetta in last year's "Zero Dark Thirty," among other performances. He was set to star in an upcoming HBO crime drama called "Criminal Justice," which had only been green-lighted in May.
Initial reports varied as to whether Gandolfini died of a heart attack or stroke. His body has reportedly been delivered to a morgue in Rome where it will undergo an autopsy.
He is survived by his second wife Deborah Lin, their daughter, and his son from his first marriage.