Born and raised in New Jersey, press-shy James Gandolfini forged a film career as a prolific character actor before finally emerging as a bona fide star in the critically-lauded HBO series The Sopranos. After earning his college degree in 1983, Gandolfini headed to New York to study at the Actors Studio. Supporting himself for almost ten years as a bartender and nightclub manager, Gandolfini's major break came in 1992 with a role in a Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, and his film debut in Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us. Following small parts in several 1993 films, including the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance, Gandolfini played more substantial roles as one of the heavies in Terminal Velocity (1994), Geena Davis' neighborhood boyfriend in Angie (1994), one of the submarine crew in Crimson Tide (1995), and a stuntman-turned-Mob enforcer in Get Shorty (1995). Equally gifted at playing characters on either side of the law, Gandolfini appeared as the violent neighbor who assaults Robin Wright Penn in She's So Lovely (1997) and a cop in Lumet's legal drama Night Falls on Manhattan (1997).
Gandolfini played supporting roles in several more films, including Fallen (1998) and A Civil Action (1998), before he was cast as the head of a dysfunctional Mafia family in The Sopranos. Anchored by Gandolfini's superbly-nuanced performance as Prozac-popping, mother-bedeviled capo Tony Soprano, The Sopranos was hailed as a TV masterpiece for its alternately funny, surreal and deadly-serious look at New Jersey Mob life. Though he was passed over for the Emmy, Gandolfini won the SAG and Golden Globe Awards for Lead Actor in a TV drama for The Sopranos' 1999 season. During the series break, Gandolfini appeared as a slimy pornographer in 8MM (1999).
Gandolfini finally added the Emmy to his trophies in 2000 for the second season of The Sopranos. Despite the inevitable criticism about the series' sophomore slump, there was no question as to Gandolfini's continuing excellence as the New Jersey Mob paterfamilias. Gandolfini followed his Emmy triumph with a supporting role as a gay hit man in The Mexican (2001), easily stealing the film from co-stars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. Even as he was earning The Mexican's few good notices in theaters, Gandolfini was garnering still more plaudits for The Sopranos' controversial third season, as Tony's increasingly delinquent son elicited anguished soul-searching from Tony about his legacy. Though his third Emmy nomination spoke to his formidable TV presence as Tony, Gandolfini also further burnished his movie credits with a small part in Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's Cannes Film Festival award winner The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and a major starring role as a corrupt Army colonel who goes head-to-head with Robert Redford's incarcerated general in The Last Castle (2001).
Gandolfini continued to impress on The Sopranos for the show's run, which finally ended in 2007. He would also find success on screen, appearing in a wide and impressive variety of roles in films like All the King's Men, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Violet & Daisy. Tragically, Gandolfini died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2013 at the age of 51.