Actor James Gandolfini Dies Suddenly While On Vacation

The 51-year-old actor died on Wednesday in Rome. Reports attribute his death to a heart attack. Gandolfini had been a character actor for years before he was given a chance to read for Tony Soprano in a new series about a New Jersey mob boss HBO was producing in the late 90s.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning, we remember the actor who managed to turn a Mafia boss into an everyman. James Gandolfini, who became famous as Tony Soprano, has died at 51 years old, suddenly in Rome. The possible cause, a heart attack. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: James Gandolfini had been a character actor for years before he was given a chance to read for Tony Soprano in a new series about a New Jersey mob boss HBO was producing, in the late '90s. He loved the script. But he told Newsweek a few years later, back then, he didn't think he'd get the job. "I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair."

But series creator David Chase told FRESH AIR's Terry Gross, he knew as soon as Gandolfini walked into the room, he'd found his man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRESH AIR BROADCAST)

DAVID CHASE: Without Jim Gandolfini, there is no "Sopranos." There's no Tony Soprano.

BATES: Chase went on to say that the series' success depended on Gandolfini's ability to make viewers empathize with a man they'd find repulsive under normal circumstances.

CHASE: That's why the whole thing, I think, is so identifiable to so many people - because he just is so human. And people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him, despite the heinous things he's doing on screen.

BATES: It was the soulful eyes, the rueful grin and the bulky body. James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano could go from teddy bear to snarling pit bull in about five seconds, depending on whether he needed to charm or terrify. Co-star Edie Falco played his long-suffering wife, Carmella, and she told MORNING EDITION in 2002, viewers should be very clear: Jim Gandolfini was not Tony Soprano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDIE FALCO: No. He's quiet and smart and introspective, lovely; everything you could hope for in a co-worker, actually. He's a dream come true.

BATES: Although his character's balancing act was enough to give any actor nightmares. On the one hand, Tony Soprano was a mob boss with all the pressures of keeping unruly colleagues and envious competitors in line, using all the splatter-worthy measures you can think up - and then some. On the other, he's the father of two spoiled teenagers - and a wife who's furious with his regular infidelities and occasional attempts at discipline.

In this scene, Carmella and Tony are fighting because Tony has decided he wants to send son A.J. to military school. Carmella is having none of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE SOPRANOS")

FALCO: (as Carmella Soprano) He is still a child. He's a normal child. He's made some mistakes. And God knows, he's got a (bleep) load to learn about life. That does not mean that I'm going to let you send him to the type of school whose whole reason for being is to make him follow orders by instilling fear!

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) He thinks the world owes him a (bleep) living!

FALCO: (as Carmella Soprano) What could have given him that bizarre idea?

BATES: That sounds like a whole lot of parents disagreeing about how much to discipline the kids, right - with different language, maybe.

Gandolfini was famously modest, attributing the success of "The Sopranos" to a superb ensemble cast and brilliant writing. True. But it was also his ability to create a character whose complexity drew viewers in week after week and that earned him a slew of prestigious awards, including three Emmys. Some of the most lauded and intense scenes were with Lorraine Bracco, who played psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. Tony consulted the doctor about his depression and eventually, fell in love with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE SOPRANOS")

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Forget about the way that Tony Soprano makes his way in the world; that's just to feed his children. There's two Tony Sopranos. You've never seen the other one. That's the one I want to show to you.

BATES: Fortunately for "The Sopranos'" fans, James Gandolfni did a great job of showing both.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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