American actor James Joseph Gandolfini was born on September 18, 1961 in Westwood, New Jersey. Although he discovered acting in the 1980’s James was best known for his role as crime boss Tony Soprano in the hit television series, The Sopranos.
5 Early years
James grew up in New Jersey, where he attended Park Ridge high school and graduated in 1979. He was popular in his high school years; as he was given the nickname “Class Flirt” in his yearbook. James was active with school sports especially basketball, and also participated in stage plays.
James graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Rutgers University. While working as a nightclub manager and bouncer in the school pub, and he also had experience bar-tending. During this time, he discovered the world of theater when a friend took him to an acting class which left him challenged by an exercise involving threading a needle.
4 Theater and the Silver Screen
James enrolled in more theater work, and in 1992 came his Broadway debut when he played in the revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which he starred alongside Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. He also starred in a production of On the Waterfront for 6 weeks. Other stage credits of James included Tarantulas Dancing, and One Day Wonder with the Actor’s Studio.
James had a breakthrough role when he starred as Virgil, a brutal hit man in True Romance, which also starred Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater. The role catapulted him into stardom, and he eventually went to star in over 25 films in the span of a single decade. Some of James’ notable movie performances included playing John Cusack’s brother in Money For Nothing, a former stuntman in Get Shorty, and a conscience-troubled mob enforcer in The Juror. James played an important role in A Civil Action, which also featured Robert Duvall and John Travolta; as well as the plumber boyfriend of Geena Davis in Angie.
Shortly after The Sopranos, James was also the executive producer for the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, which was the first production for his company named Attaboy Films. The company was formed in 2006 with his partner Alexander Ryan. Alive Day Memories was a documentary dedicated to patriotic surviving Iraq war veterans, which also documented the emotional and physical battles they had to deal with at war. He interviewed ten soldiers to produce the show, who talked insightfully about the challenges of breaking back into normal society and family life. The soldiers also talked about near-death events, and how life may have been for them if things didn’t go the way they did.
James also produced another HBO documentary entitled Wartorn; which explored the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in American soldiers and their families, throughout history. He interviewed American military officials to discuss their opinions on the disorder and discussed efforts being done to help American soldiers deal with post traumatic stress disorder.
3 Star of the Show
James was awarded the starring role of Tony Soprano on the hit television series, The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999. The role led him to winning a Golden Globe as well as Screen Actors Guild Award for his character, which was a mobster experiencing personal troubles due to a midlife crisis. James also won three Emmy awards in the category of Best Actor in a Drama. The Sopranos continued to show until 2003, after which it ended after a successful sixth and last season.
2 Life after the Sopranos
James showed his comedic side when he was featured in Surviving Christmas in 2004, where he starred alongside Ben Affleck. He continued to accept dramatic, brooding roles; as he acted with Sean Penn in the political drama All the King’s Men in 2006.
In 2009, James made a return to the big screen in the movie The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, as well as In the Loop. He even contributed his voice talent for a live production of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.
Later roles included playing a CIA director in the highly applauded film Zero Dark Thirty, where he starred with Jessica Chastain. He also worked with Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, a dramatic crime-thriller. James continued to entertain audiences with his comedic talent when in 2013 he starred as Doug Munny in the film, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. In the previous year, he was also the executive producer for Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO miniseries which told the story of Ernest Hemingway and his journalist lover and third wife, Martha Gellhorn.
1 James, Off Screen
James married his wife Marcella in 1999, although the marriage ended in divorce in 2002. The couple gave birth to their only child, Michael, in 2000. Later on, he began dating Lora Somoza, and in 2008 married Deborah Lin, a former model. James and Deborah had a daughter, by the name of Liliana Ruth Gandolfini, who was born in Los Angeles in 2012.
On June 19, 2013, James suffered a heart attack at the age of 51, while traveling to Italy on vacation as well as to attend the Taormina Film Festival. The heart attack came a day after he explored Rome, as his son Michael found him on the bathroom floor around 10 pm. His son called hotel reception who arranged to have paramedics take James’ body to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.
The internet was abuzz when news of his death broke out to his friends and family in the United States. Dedications and efforts to honor James’ life sprouted from all corners of the country, even from politicians John McCain. The day after his death, musician Bruce Springsteen gave a full performance of the 1975 hit "Born to Run", which he played alongside E Street Band and Steven Van Zandt in memory of James.