The late James Gandolfini wasn’t always the hulking, balding man the world grew to love as a ruthless yet sensitive mobster on The Sopranos.
Iconic for his portrayal of the philandering Tony Soprano, who had better luck being loyal to his mob family than his own family, Gandolfini was equally frisky in his younger years, decades before he played the enigmatic violent sociopath on The Sopranos.
Born September 18, 1961, James Gandolfini was best known as the affable Tony Soprano, the Mafia crime boss, and the family patriarch in HBO’s The Sopranos.
Sometimes sensitive, other times sociopathic, Gandolfini’s landmark performance of the flawed gangster earned him numerous awards and international acclaim.
Speaking of the lovable but brutal Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini told Vogue: “I am playing an Italian lunatic from New Jersey, and that’s basically what I am.”
After a hugely successful six-season run, the series ended in 2007, leaving fans wondering if the blacked-out screen in the end meant the antihero is alive, or dead.
Tragedy in Rome
But, along with the legendary actor, the elder Soprano died on June 19, 2013, after a heart attack claimed the life of the beloved 51-year-old star.
The Jersey-born man was travelling with his family in Italy and was in the hotel with his then 13-year-old son Michael when he had a heart attack and died.
Gandolfini left behind his wife Deborah Lin, who he married in 2008, daughter Liliane (born 2012), and Michael, who he shares with first wife, Marcy Wudarski.
Almost 10 years later, Michael landed the biggest role of his life, playing the role of a young Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark.
In September 2021, Michael spoke with the New York Times about capturing the complexity of the character his father so effortlessly played.
“I was always like, ‘I want to make my dad proud. I want to make my dad proud.’” The then 22-year-old actor continued, “I truly wasn’t aware of the legacy of him…My dad was just my dad.”
Though it’s cliché, Michael is his dad. The man inherited many of his father’s features and characteristics, like the sleepy yet inviting eyes, a menacing smirk and the soft voice mixed with the colorful language.
“The pressure is real,” he said of playing the mafia don as a youngster. “Not only was it the feeling of my dad – it was like, Tony Soprano is a f***ing hard character.”
Before Gandolfini had three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe resting on his mantel, he was a regular Italian American kid growing up with his working-class family in a modest Westwood, New Jersey home.
His father served as the building maintenance chief at a Catholic school, and his mother worked as a lunch lady in a high school. He was a “happy, cute little boy,” as described by childhood chum Pam Donlan, who would later become a highly respected actor in Hollywood.
In 1979, the young man, who stood just over 6 ft., was a senior at Park Ridge High School in New Jersey, where he was one of the popular kids.
Excelling in both academics and extra-curricular activities, the Get Shorty star developed his skills as an actor while in high school, where he studied theatre.
It was in these years the Where the Wild Things Are star met John Travolta, whose father owned a store the senior Gandolfini patronized.
“My father sold tires to his father,” Travolta said after Gandolfini died. “I was his inspiration to get into the business…He would see pictures of me on the wall from movies and he decided that he wanted to be an actor.”
Before heading off to Rutgers University, where he graduated with a Bachelors of Arts, Gandolfini first celebrated his last year at high school with classmates voting him “best looking” and – not surprisingly – “biggest flirt.”
On a Facebook post shared by the Park Ridge community, an old photo of the young star along with a woman, Donna Lange, shows the two as “class flirts.”
“I [love] this picture of Jimmy and Donna…I always remember him like this…happy kid with that killer smile,” writes one old friend. “It’s a great picture of Jim and Donna,” shares another.
Meanwhile, Duff Lambros remembers his childhood friend as having “a “quiet confidence,” and “a cool dignity.” He said, “Girls loved him. Guys loved him.”
The friend adds, “When he cracked that smile, it wasn’t just teeth, he smiled with his eyes. It felt like the sun was shining.”
Travolta – who shared the screen with Gandfolfini in several films – remembers his long-time family friend as a giant not only as an actor, but also in his personal life. “He was a people person first and then everything else,” Travolta said. “He was this beautiful man and I love him very much.”
Despite Tony Soprano’s imposing presence, Gandolfini exhibited remarkable humility and dedication. He humorously characterized himself as a “260-pound Woody Allen,” emphasizing his unassuming nature despite the larger-than-life character he portrayed on screen.
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