James Gandolfini (James Joseph Gandolfini)

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

Gandolfini was born in Westwood, New Jersey. His mother, Santa (née Penna), a high school lunch lady of Italian ancestry, was born in the United States and raised in Naples, Italy. His father, James Joseph Gandolfini, Sr., a native of Borgo Val di Taro, Italy, was a bricklayer and cement mason and later the head janitor at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey. James Sr. earned a Purple Heart in World War II. Gandolfini’s parents were devout Roman Catholics and spoke Italian at home. Due to the influence of his parents, he developed a strong sense of Italian American identity and visited Italy regularly.

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey and graduated from Park Ridge High School in 1979, where he played basketball, acted in school plays, and was awarded the title “Class Flirt” in his senior yearbook. He attained a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies from Rutgers University in 1982, where he worked as a bouncer at an on-campus pub.  He also worked as a bartender and club manager in Manhattan prior to his acting career. He was introduced to acting as a young man living in New York City, when he accompanied his friend Roger Bart to a Meisner technique acting class, where he studied for two years under Kathryn Gately at The Gately Poole Conservatory.

Gandolfini performed in a 1992 Broadway production of On the Waterfront for six weeks. One of his earlier film roles was that of Virgil, a brutal woman-beating mob enforcer, in the romantic thriller True Romance (1993), for which he said one of his major inspirations was an old friend of his, who was a hitman. In the film Terminal Velocity (1994), Gandolfini played Ben Pinkwater, a seemingly mild-mannered insurance man who turns out to be a violent Russian mobster. In Get Shorty (1995), he appeared as a bearded ex-stuntman with a Southern accent, and in The Juror (1996), he played a mob enforcer with a conscience.

Gandolfini’s most acclaimed role was Tony Soprano, the lead character in the HBO drama The Sopranos, a New Jersey mob boss and family man whose constant existential questioning includes regular psychiatric appointments. The show debuted in 1999 and was broadcast until 2007. For his depiction of Soprano, Gandolfini won three Emmys for “Best Actor in a Drama” and Entertainment Weekly listed him as the 42nd Greatest TV Icon of All Time. In addition to the awards that he won, Gandolfini received numerous nominations and two SAG Awards for being a member of the series’ ensemble.

In 2007, Gandolfini produced a documentary with HBO focused on injured Iraq War veterans and their devotion to America, while surveying the physical and emotional costs of war. Gandolfini interviewed ten surviving soldiers, who revealed their thoughts about the challenges they face reintegrating into society and family life. They also reflected on their memories of the day when they narrowly escaped death and what life may have been like in other circumstances.

That same year, Gandolfini returned to HBO as the executive producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary special, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, his first project after The Sopranos and the first production for his company Attaboy Films, which was opened in 2006 with producing partner Alexandra Ryan. He returned to the stage in 2009, appearing in Broadway’s God of Carnage with Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels. He received a Tony Award nomination in the category of Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his role in the play but lost to Geoffrey Rush from the play, Exit the King. He played the Mayor of New York in the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 123.

In 2010, Gandolfini produced another documentary with HBO, which analyzed the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder throughout American history, from 1861 to 2010. It featured interviews with American military officials on their views of PTSD and how they are trying to help soldiers affected by it. Letters from soldiers of the American Civil War and World War I who were affected by PTSD are examined, along with interviews with soldiers affected by PTSD and their families.  Gandolfini was executive producer of the HBO film about Ernest Hemingway and his relationship with Martha Gellhorn, titled Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). Gandolfini reunited with The Sopranos creator David Chase for Not Fade Away (2012), a music-driven production set in 1960s New Jersey, and the latter’s feature film debut.

Gandolfini maintained ties with his Park Ridge, New Jersey hometown by supporting its Octoberwoman Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. He appeared at its annual October banquet and often brought other cast members of The Sopranos to help draw larger crowds. He lived in New York City and owned a lot on the Lake Manitoba Narrows. In 2009, he purchased a home in the hills of Tewksbury Township, New Jersey GQ’s Brett Martin said about Gandolfini: “In interviews, which the actor did his very best to avoid, the actor would often fall back on some version of ‘I’m just a dumb, fat guy from Jersey.'”  Gandolfini and his first wife, Marcy Wudarski, divorced in December 2002. They have a son named Michael (born 2000). On August 30, 2008, after two years of dating, Gandolfini married former model Deborah Lin in her hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. Their daughter, Liliana Ruth Gandolfini, was born in Los Angeles, California on October 10, 2012.

Gandolfini died on June 19, 2013, aged 51, during a vacation in Rome, Italy. He was expected to travel to Sicily a few days later to receive an award at the Taormina Film Fest. After a day of sightseeing in sweltering heat, Gandolfini’s 13-year-old son Michael discovered him unconscious at around 10 pm local time on the bathroom floor at the Boscolo Exedra Hotel in the Piazza della Repubblica. Michael called hotel reception, who called emergency paramedics. Gandolfini reportedly arrived at the hospital at 10:40 pm and was pronounced dead at 11 pm. An autopsy confirmed that he had died of a heart attack.

While word of his death spread, politicians such as John McCain and Chris Christie took to the Internet to respond. Christie ordered all New Jersey State buildings to fly flags at half staff on June 24 to honor Gandolfini when his remains were returned to the United States. The people of Gandolfini’s hometown started a Facebook page to discuss plans to honor him, including naming a street after him and renaming the Little Theater at Park Ridge High School, where he did his first performances, after him.

The day after Gandolfini’s death, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, which has long featured Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt on guitar, gave a performance of their 1975 classic “Born to Run” and dedicated it to Gandolfini. Gandolfini’s body was returned to the U.S. on June 23, 2013. Family spokesman Michael Kobold thanked both Italian and American authorities for expediting the repatriation process, which normally takes seven days. Broadway dimmed theater marquee lights on the night of Wednesday, June 26 in Gandolfini’s honor. His funeral service was held on June 27, 2013 at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights, New York.

TV Guide published a special tribute to Gandolfini in their July 1, 2013 issue, devoting the entire back cover of that issue to his image. Columnist Matt Roush cited Gandolfini’s work as Tony Soprano as an influence on subsequent cable TV protagonists, saying: “Without Tony, there’s no Vic Mackey of The Shield, no Al Swearengen of Deadwood, no Don Draper of Mad Men (whose creator, Matthew Weiner, honed his craft as a writer on The Sopranos).” Similar testimonials were included by his costars and colleagues, including Edie Falco, who expressed shock and devastation at his death, Sopranos creator David Chase, who praised him as a “genius”, Bryan Cranston, who stated that his Breaking Bad character Walter White would not have existed without Tony Soprano, and Gandolfini’s Killing Them Softly co-star Brad Pitt, who expressed admiration for Gandolfini as a “ferocious actor, a gentle soul and a genuinely funny man”.

Three months after his death, it was reported that in Gandolfini’s last will and testament, dated December 19, 2012 and filed July 2, 2013 in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, he left a substantial portion of his estimated $70 million estate to his two sisters, widow, and daughter. The will did not state any inheritance for his only son, Michael, because Gandolfini provided for him a separate trust that is funded by a life insurance policy. In December 2013, following an online petition campaign started by Gandolfini’s high school classmate, Lori Fredrics, his hometown renamed its Park Avenue to James Gandolfini Way at a public ceremony attended by several of his former Sopranos co-stars.

Born

  • September, 18, 1961
  • Westwood, New Jersey

Died

  • June, 19, 2013
  • Rome, Italy

Cause of Death

  • Heart attack

Cemetery

    Other

    • Cremated, Ashes given to family

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