James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

gandolfiniJames Gandolfini, the brilliant character actor who starred in The Sopranos and created television’s greatest anti-hero, is dead at 51.

Gandolfini established himself as an actor to watch via small but striking performances in the Tony Scott films True Romance and Crimson Tide, as well as Get Shorty and The Juror. But it was the role of Tony Soprano, the Mafia chief at the center of HBO’s The Sopranos, that made him a star—and won him three Emmys. Yet he was far more than just Tony Soprano; he memorably played a lovesick, singing philanderer in Romance and Cigarettes, the mayor of New York in The Taking of Pelham 123, a high-ranking military man in the satire In the Loop, and the director of the C.I.A. in Zero Dark Thirty. Even when he revisited the Soprano type—as when he played a busted-out hitman in Killing Them Softly or a Jersey patriarch in Sopranos creator David Chase’s Not Fade Away—he was never repeating himself, adding textures and nuances that made each character unique.

Representatives from HBO, where the actor had an ongoing development deal, confirmed Wednesday that Gandolfini died while on vacation with his family in Italy. The cause of his death is not yet confirmed, but early reports indicate he may have died of a heart attack.