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Arrivederci Tony! Tributes pour in for Sopranos star James Gandolfini after heart attack death aged 51

Actor was best known for his role as the troubled mob boss Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano would not have been so modest. When James Gandolfini won the part of the godfather in mob drama The Sopranos, perhaps the most acclaimed small-screen series of all time, his reaction, he often said, was one of surprise.

“I thought it was a wonderful script,” Mr Gandolfini told Newsweek in 2001, remembering his audition, a hurdle he had fully expected to stumble at. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye.”

For his friends and fellow actors, such a reaction was classic Gandolfini – a gentle giant who kept his feet firmly on the ground, even while his iconic portrayal of troubled New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano won him three Emmy awards, and helped to usher in a golden age of cable television drama, cementing the HBO channel’s name as a byword for quality.

These friends and fellow actors are today paying tribute to Gandolfini, who died at the age of 51 on Wednesday evening after suffering a suspected heart attack while on holiday in Rome. He is survived by his wife Deborah Lin, whom he married in 2008, and their baby daughter Liliana, who was born in October. He also has a teenage son, Michael, from his first marriage to Marcy Wudarksi.

In a statement, The Sopranos creator David Chase described Gandolfini as a “genius”.

He said: “He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone… He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”

Lorraine Bracco, who played Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist Dr Melfi, said: "I had the greatest sparring partner in the world, I had Muhammad Ali. He cares what he does, and does it extremely well."

Musician Steven van Zandt, who played Tony Soprano’s right hand man Silvio Dante, and will be on stage in Coventry tonight as a member of the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen, said on Twitter: “I have lost a brother and a best friend. The world has lost one of the greatest actors of all time.”

Comedian and actor Robin Williams simply described him as “an extraordinary actor”.

Like his most famous character, Gandolfini was an Italian-American from New Jersey. His father was an Italian immigrant who had worked several of jobs, including janitor and bricklayer. His mother, Santa, was a dinner lady in a high school.

Born in 1961, Gandolfini attended Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, before graduating in 1983 with a degree in communications. He worked as a barman, delivery driver and bouncer in New York City when, at the age of 25, a friend persuaded him to attend an acting class. In 1992 he was cast alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The following year he took a supporting role as a hood in the Quentin Tarantino-scripted movie, True Romance. The film’s British film director Tony Scott, who killed himself in August 2012, had praised Gandolfini as having a "unique combination of charming and dangerous".

It was that performance which earned him the role of Tony Soprano, who juggled his murderous work with an ostensibly sedate suburban family life, and whom Gandolfini played for six series from 1999 to 2007. He was nominated for six Emmy Awards, winning three.

Earlier this month, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) released its list of the best screenplays ever, with The Sopranos at the top.

“In the dozens of hours he had on the screen, he made Tony Soprano—lovable, repulsive, cunning, ignorant, brutal—more ruthlessly alive than any character we’ve ever encountered in television,” David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker, wrote in a tribute.

On Wednesday night, fans arrived in force at the ice cream shop in Bloomfield, New Jersey where the final diner scene of The Sopranos was shot. The table where Tony and his family sat during that scene was left empty, however, but for a reserved sign in Gandolfini’s memory. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in a tweet that the actor was a “NJ treasure”.

Gandolfini’s film career included memorable supporting roles in Get Shorty (1995), Crimson Tide (1995), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Killing Them Softly (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). On Broadway, Gandolfini garnered a best-actor Tony Award nomination for 2009's God of Carnage.

Shortly before his death, Gandolfini had been working on a US remake of the BBC series Criminal Justice for HBO. “We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” HBO said in a statement. “He was 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. He touched so many of us over the years with his humour, his warmth and his humility.”

Gandolfini’s career after The Sopranos was characterised by smaller, supporting roles, such as that of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.

Director and satirist Armando Iannucci, who worked with Gandolfini on the film In The Loop, said: "People were surprised James Gandolfini was so different from Tony Soprano. That's because he was a great actor. Warm, gentle and funny."

In an interview with The Associated Press in December last year, Gandolfini said he had gravitated towards acting as way to rid himself of anger, but that having played the rage-filled Soprano, he wanted to play less angry characters on screen. 

"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… 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."

Gandolfini had been in Italy to attend the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. Organisers have announced they will screen a tribute to Gandolfini, who had been expected to receive an award in person at the festival’s closing ceremony this weekend. The festival’s organisers Mario Sesti and Tiziana Rocca said they had spoken to Gandolfini just hours before his death, and described him as "very happy to receive this prize and be able to travel to Italy."

Though Gandolfini’s managers said he had suffered a heart attack, coroner Antonio Spasola at Rome's Policlinico Umberto I hospital declined to give a cause of death.