It is said that when jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker died, the coroner guessed he was in his 50s. Parker was, in fact, 34 years old. Likewise, many of us might have been surprised to learn that actor James Gandolfini, who died suddenly on Wednesday night, was a mere 51. This means that when The Sopranos first aired in 1999, Gandolfini was only 37 or 38 years old. Of course it was alcohol that led to Parker's downfall. For all I know, Gandolfini's apparent heart attack (an autopsy is scheduled) happened because the man was a hulking figure who enjoyed life—he was in Rome at the time with his 13-year-old son on his way to the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily (he suffered the heart attack in the bathroom of his suite at the five-star hotel Exedra).
Did Gandolfini ever look young on screen? He was 31 when he did the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance. And he was 33 in Crimson Tide. I would have guessed he was in his mid to late 40s by the time he agreed to star in David Chase's HBO series, The Sopranos. In terms of his overall presence, his size was a blessing and, as it turns out, a curse.
As Sonny Bunch notes over at the Washington Free Beacon:
The success of The Sopranos inspired HBO to take chances on questionable projects that dealt with hot-button social issues (The Wire) and moribund genres like the western (Deadwood). And its critical and commercial success drew other networks into the game: FX and AMC used the proof that original programming could sell to build their brand and turn into powerhouses in their own right.... Without The Sopranos, there’s no New Golden Age of Television. And without James Gandolfini, there’s no Sopranos.... The anti-hero became an archetype because of Tony Soprano and the stunning work that James Gandolfini did. He showed what a great actor could do in a heretofore-disreputable medium. He spawned an entire generation of memorable characters, sympathetic creeps like Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen, Walter White, and Don Draper.
There's not much I can add to that. He was a genuine Jersey guy (though he did have a speech coach for the role of Tony Soprano) who graduated from Rutgers University. He shied away from the press and dealing with the sudden fame was difficult.
Thanks to YouTube and HBO not chasing vigorously after copyright violators, there are a ton of clips from the series—just beware of the violence, such as when Tony and Ralph come to blows (notice how innocuously it all starts). And his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio is also available. Gandolfini also had a sense of humor, as seen below during his Saturday Night Live cameo: