Actor James Gandolfini, 51, dies of cardiac arrest

James Gandolfini is shown in his role as Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey crime family portrayed in HBO’s “The Sopranos.” HBO and the managers for Gandolfini say the actor died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51.

James Gandolfini is shown in his role as Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey crime family portrayed in HBO’s “The Sopranos.” HBO and the managers for Gandolfini say the actor died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51. Photo by The Associated Press.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Gandolfini’s lumbering, brutish mob boss with the tortured psyche will endure as one of TV’s indelible characters.

But his portrayal of criminal Tony Soprano in HBO’s landmark drama series “The Sopranos” was just one facet of an actor who created a rich legacy of film and stage work in a life cut short.

Gandolfini, 51, who died Wednesday while vacationing in Rome, refused to be bound by his star-making role in the HBO series that brought him three Emmy Awards during its six-season run.

“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.”

Dr. Claudio Modini, head of the emergency room at the Policlinic Umberto I hospital in Rome, said Gandolfini suffered a cardiac arrest. He arrived at the hospital at 10:40 p.m. Wednesday and was pronounced dead at 11 p.m. after resuscitation efforts in the ambulance and hospital failed, Modini said.

Modini told The Associated Press that an autopsy would be performed starting 24 hours after the death, as required by law.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome, which said it had learned about the death from the media, said it would be available to provide a death certificate and help prepare Gandolfini’s body for return to the United States. The Embassy said it can often take between four and seven days to arrange shipment outside of Italy.

It isn’t yet known yet what caused his heart to stop beating. Sudden cardiac arrest can be due to a heart attack, a heart rhythm problem, or as a result of trauma. The chance of cardiac arrest increases as people get older; men over age 45 have a greater risk. Men in general are up to three times more likely to have a sudden cardiac arrest than women.

Michael Kobold, a family friend, told reporters in Rome that a family member discovered Gandolfini in his hotel room, but he declined to say whom. NBC quoted Antonio D’Amore, manager of Rome’s Boscolo Exedra hotel, as saying it was Gandolfini’s 13-year-old son, Michael.

Organizers of the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily were scrambling to put together a tribute to Gandolfini, who had been expected to attend the festival’s closing ceremony this weekend and receive an award. They said Gandolfini will instead be honored with a tribute “remembering his career and talent.”

Mario Sesti and Tiziana Rocca said they had spoken to Gandolfini hours before his death “and he was very happy to receive this prize and be able to travel to Italy.”

Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela on “The Sopranos,” remembered him as a “man of tremendous depth and sensitivity.”

“I am shocked and devastated by Jim’s passing,” she said in a statement. “I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague. My heart goes out to his family. As those of us in his pretend one hold on to the memories of our intense and beautiful time together. The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.”

Joe Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore on the drama series, 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 and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year, HBO said. Michael is the son of the actor and his former wife, Marcy.

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge in New Jersey, the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.

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.

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).

Gandolfini played a tough guy in Scott’s 1993 film “True Romance,” who beat Patricia Arquette’s character to a pulp while offering such jarring, flirtatious banter as, “You got a lot of heart, kid.”

In his early career, Gandolfini had 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).

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