When James Gandolfini died of a heart attack on June 19, 2013, his sudden passing shocked and saddened the world. That the Emmy-winning actor died while on vacation in Italy was beside the point at the time, more a logistical and diplomatic pain than anything else, but it is nonetheless a noteworthy detail in his biography given his heritage and greatest accomplishments.
Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey decades before becoming one of its most iconic stars
For the better part of the 2000s, Gandolfini was one of the most decorated and beloved TV and film actors in the country. Starring as beleaguered mob boss Tony Soprano in the drama The Sopranos, Gandolfini helped usher in the era of prestige television with a nuanced performance that transformed the tired mobster archetype into an empathetic, three-dimensional figure.
He was especially beloved in his home state of New Jersey, where The Sopranos was set and Gandolfini helped to bring new notoriety.
Gandolfini was born to Italian immigrant parents in Westwood, New Jersey and grew up in the town of Park Ridge, both in Bergen County, just across the river from New York City. He was both an athlete and theater kid, playing basketball in high school and starring in student productions such as Arsenic and Old Lace and Can-Can. When Gandolfini graduated from Park Ridge High School, he was voted one of two senior class flirts.
After high school, he attended Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey. He didn’t often do interviews at the height of his fame, but during one of his conversations with a long-time Star-Ledger reporter, the actor fondly recalled being nervous about attending — and paying for — college before settling in at the school’s New Brunswick campus.
“Then I got there, and I thought, jeeze, 50,000 18-year-olds in one place – what the hell was I complaining about?” Gandolfini said. “This is great. I was around a lot of fun people and I had a ball. I had more fun than somebody probably should have.”
In New York, Gandolfini discovered his love for theater
After graduating with a degree in English literature and communications in 1983, Gandolfini moved across the river to Manhattan, unsure of what he’d do next. He worked as a bouncer, bartender and nightclub manager; he even started his own club called Private Eyes. That could have been a viable career, but at 25, he went to an acting class with a friend and found himself enthralled with performing on the stage.
Several years of intensive study came next, followed by roles in obscure off-Broadway shows made possible by working other jobs during the daytime. Gandolfini’s big break came nearly a decade later, in 1992, when he was cast in a Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ classic drama A Streetcar Named Desire alongside co-stars Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. Plenty of character roles followed over the next six years, including parts in True Romance, Crimson Tide, Get Shorty and The Juror.
Gandolfini often played tough guys and mobsters, which set him up for the role that would change his life and television altogether.
‘The Sopranos’ was an instant sensation
The Sopranos hit the airwaves in 1999 and revived a mobster drama genre that had strayed since the heights of the first two Godfather movies. Tony Soprano is a capo, or enforcer, of the DiMeo crime family in New Jersey. There is no hiding or sugar coating his brutal actions — they make up the bulk of his job — but he’s also sincerely focused on his wife Carmela, kids and mother, all of whom control his life in a way that mirrors the control he has out on the streets.
Gandolfini was able to humanize an instinctively violent and not infrequently depraved character by devoting himself fully to the craft — practicing the Meisner method, he would often stay up late at night to deprive himself of sleep and find other ways to aggravate himself before shooting a particular scene.
Some of his most memorable interactions on the show were with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, who helped Tony explore the anxiety, depression and damage underlying his mood swings and violence. He was, like so many others, a working guy just trying to make a living for his family in a complicated world.
“I think those scenes made the show,” he once said. “They were kind of like the ancient Greek chorus, which allowed the audience to experience what the character was experiencing. I think these scenes let you into Tony’s head, bringing him a little closer to the audience.”
The show wrapped after six seasons and 83 episodes, for which Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards and a number of other honors. Its 2007 finale is still one of the most hotly debated episodes of TV in history, with an ambiguous ending that fit a complicated character.
“He was a genius,” Sopranos creator David Chase said in 2013. “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. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.”
As Gandolfini’s star grew, he earned more prominent movie roles, which he made his focus after ending his run as Tony Soprano. Some of his most memorable film performances came in hits such as the satire In The Loop, the Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty, and the romantic dramedy Enough Said.
Directed by Nicole Holofcener and co-starring Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said showcased Gandolfini’s comedic talents and earned him critical acclaim when it was released — three months after his passing.
Gandolfini was exploring his roots in Italy when he passed away
In June 2013, the actor set off to visit Italy. Invited to the Taormina Film Festival to receive a special honor, Gandolfini decided to set off early and reconnect with his heritage; his parents emigrated from Italy and had brought him back to visit regularly as a kid.
This time, he took his own family on the trip, and according to the director of the Taormina Film Festival, they were having a “marvelous” time in Rome. His son, Michael, had just finished his junior high school and won a soccer championship, making it an all-around celebratory excursion.
On June 19, at around 10 pm, Michael found Gandolfini passed out on the floor of their room at the Hotel Exedra.
“The family had a marvelous day together, and when he returned to the hotel Jimmy [Gandolfini] went to the bathroom and that is when something happened,” his assistant, Tom Richardson, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The 13-year-old called the reception desk for help, and when workers failed to revive him, an ambulance was called. Gandolfini was alive when he was taken to the Policlinico Umberto I hospital at around 10:40, but he died soon after his arrival.
An autopsy later confirmed that Gandolfini had suffered a major heart attack, cutting his life short at just 51-years-old, robbing his family of a loving father and the world of a major talent.
A few months after his death, in December 2013, a street in his native Park Ridge, near the diner where he used to eat with his friends and family, was renamed in Gandolfini’s honor.