LOS ANGELES (AP) -- James 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 in Italy. He was 51.
Gandolfini died while on holiday 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."
AP TV Writer Frazier Moore Writes:
James Gandolfini would have hated all this fuss.
He was an actor who shrank from attention for anything but the roles he brought to life. No false modesty. He simply did his best to remain a private citizen behind his public characters. These included, of course, Tony Soprano, the fiendish, tormented mobster who the world came to know and revere as a towering dramatic achievement.
Now, out of the blue, this flood of tributes to Gandolfini upon his untimely death? This would likely have struck him as excessive and needless, upstaging for a moment his lifetime of work.
"I'm much more comfortable doing smaller things," he declared not long ago. And in the past year, his film appearances included supporting (or smaller) roles in Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt docudrama "Zero Dark Thirty," "Sopranos" creator David Chase's `60s period drama "Not Fade Away," and Andrew Dominick's crime flick "Killing Them Softly."
It was all part of an acting career as unlikely to which TV has given rise.
How to account for the providential choice of Gandolfini to headline a high-profile HBO drama series playing an anguished mob boss and family man? Balding and beefy, he seemed the antithesis of an actor who could sustain viewers' interest, amusing them, horrifying them and compelling them to love him in a way they had never loved a TV hero before.
Gandolfini made the character monstrous yet sympathetic, a man with a murderously chilling gaze yet a mischievous smile. Thus did Tony Soprano become part of the culture, taking Gandolfini, reluctantly, with him.
By the end of the series' run, Gandolfini was suitably grateful for the role he had embodied for six seasons. But he had lent such authenticity to Tony that the character by then weighed heavily upon him. No actor stops identifying with the character he plays, no matter how repellant or villainous. An actor is required to be complicit with the man he portrays.
And yet, Gandolfini said he struggled to like Tony.
"Let's just say, it was a lot easier to like him in the beginning, than in the last few years," he told The Associated Press a few days before the series' finale in June 2007.
It was a remarkable admission by Gandolfini as he looked ahead, brightly, to new challenges.
"I don't even think I've proven myself, yet," he said. "I have yet to begin the fight, I think."
In that rare interview, Gandolfini, famously press-shy ever since "The Sopranos" blindsided him with stardom, was as gracious as he was uncomfortable discussing himself.
There was one too many questions delving into his acting process.
"Oh, please! Who gives a crap!" he scoffed (though he didn't say "crap"). Then he quickly apologized. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to be abrupt."
Despite his formidable presence in person as on film, there was no confusing him with Tony Soprano. He was his own man, down-to-earth, accommodating - and no-nonsense when it counted. Once glimpsed by a reporter filming a scene on the set of the Soprano family's plush New Jersey home, he bobbled a line of dialogue, whereupon he let out a growl, not at anyone else but directed unsparingly at himself before the cameras rolled again.
On the other hand, he clearly knew the difference between what was serious as an actor - and what was deadly serious.
Marshaling his unbidden clout as a star, Gandolfini produced (though only sparingly appeared in) a pair of documentaries for HBO focused on a cause he held dear: veterans affairs.
"Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq" (2007) profiled soldiers and Marines who had cheated death in war but continued to wage personal battles back at home. Four years later, "Wartorn: 1861-2010" charted victims of post-traumatic stress disorder from the U.S. invasion of Iraq all the way back to the Civil War.
"Do I think a documentary is going to change the world?" Gandolfini said about the latter film. "No, but I think there will be individuals who will learn things from it, so that's enough."
There were no grand pronouncements that day. No lofty goals voiced. No showboating by an actor who will never be forgotten as Tony Soprano, and then some, for the work he leaves behind.
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."
"Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply. He and his family were part of our family for many years and we are all grieving," said managers Armstrong and Sanders.
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.
Joe Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore on the HBO drama, said he was shocked and heartbroken.
"Fifty-one and leaves a kid -- he was newly married. His son is fatherless now ... It's way too young," Gannascoli said.
Gandolfini's 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 Secretary of Defense 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."
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.
While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exceptionally modest and obsessive - he described himself as "a 260-pound Woody Allen."
In past interviews, his cast mates had far more glowing descriptions to offer.
"I had the greatest sparring partner in the world, I had Muhammad Ali," said Lorraine Bracco, who, as Tony's psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, went one-on-one with Gandolfini in their penetrating therapy scenes. "He cares what he does, and does it extremely well."
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.
Gandolfini's first big break was a Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" where he played Steve, one of Stanley Kowalski's poker buddies. His film debut was in Sidney Lumet's "A Stranger Among Us" (1992).
Director Tony Scott, who killed himself in August 2012, had praised Gandolfini's talent for fusing violence with charisma - which he would perfect in Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini played a tough guy in Tony Scott's 1993 film, "True Romance," who beat Patricia Arquette's character to a pulp while offering such jarring, flirtatious banter as, "You gotta lot of heart kid."
Scott called Gandolfini "a unique combination of charming and dangerous."
Gandolfini continued with supporting roles in "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Get Shorty" (1995), "The Juror" (1996), Lumet's "Night Falls on Manhattan" (1997), "She's So Lovely" (1997), "Fallen" (1998) and "A Civil Action" (1998). But it was "True Romance" that piqued the interest of Chase.
He shared a Broadway stage with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in "God of Carnage" when he received the best-actor Tony nod. He was in "On the Waterfront" with David Morse and was an understudy in a revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1992 starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.
In his 2012 AP interview, Gandolfini said he gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger. "I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he said.
"I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he said last year. "I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much anymore."