LOS ANGELES — James Gandolfini, whose portrayal of a brutal, emotionally delicate crime boss in HBO’s “The Sopranos” was the brilliant center of one of TV’s greatest drama series and turned the mobster stereotype on its head, died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51.
Gandolfini died while vacationing in Rome, the cable channel and Gandolfini’s managers Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders said in a joint statement. No cause of death was given.
“He was a genius,” said “Sopranos” creator David Chase. “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.”
Gandolfini, who won three Emmy Awards for his role as Tony Soprano, worked steadily in film and on stage after the series ended. He earned a 2009 Tony Award nomination for his role in the celebrated production of “God of Carnage.”
HBO called the actor 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.” The channel expressed sympathy for his wife and children.
His performance in “The Sopranos” was indelible and career-making, but he refused to be stereotyped as the bulky mobster who was a therapy patient, family man and apparently effortless killer.
In a December 2012 interview with The Associated Press — a rare sit-down for the star who avoided the spotlight — he was upbeat about a slew of smaller roles following the breathtaking blackout ending in 2007 of “The Sopranos.”
“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” Gandolfini said in the interview. “I like them. I like the way they’re shot; they’re shot quickly. It’s all about the scripts — that’s what it is — and I’m getting some interesting little scripts.”
He played Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama “Zero Dark Thirty.” He worked with Chase for the ‘60s period drama “Not Fade Away,” in which he played the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick’s crime flick “Killing Them Softly,” he played an aged, washed-up hit man.
There were comedies such as the political satire “In the Loop,” and the heartwarming drama “Welcome to the Rileys,” which co-starred Kristen Stewart. He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in “Where the Wild Things Are” and made a rare return to the TV screen with the HBO film “Cinemate Verite.”
Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, N.J., the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.
After earning a degree in communications from Rutgers University, Gandolfini moved to New York, where he worked as a bartender, bouncer and nightclub manager. When he was 25, he joined a friend of a friend in an acting class, which he continued for several years.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers David Bauder, John Carucci, Jake Coyle and Frazier Moore in New York; and Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles.
PHOTO: This Sept. 10, 2000 file photo shows actor James Gandolfini with his award for outstanding lead in a drama series for his work in "The Sopranos" at the 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Gandolfini, whose portrayal of a brutal, emotionally delicate mob boss in HBO's "The Sopranos" helped create one of TV's greatest drama series and turned the mobster stereotype on its head, died Wednesday, June 19, 2013 in Italy. He was 51. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, file)