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Best known for role as thug Tony Soprano, Gandolfini was a humble star

Actor James Gandolfini in New York, Oct. 18, 2010. Gandolfini, who starred in the television show "The Sopranos, " died June 19, 2013. He was 51.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

You only had to meet the late James Gandolfini once to realize he was a creative soul trapped in a brute's body.

Although only slightly more than six-feet tall, Gandolfini easily tipped the scales in the 300-pound range and his bulky frame served him well in his career-making role as conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano on The Sopranos. Tony was a thug, no question, but he was a thug with heart.

Gandolfini, who passed away Wednesday evening while vacationing in Italy, earned three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Tony Soprano. Hospital officials in Rome told The Associated Press that Gandolfini died after suffering cardiac arrest.

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Although Gandolfini wasn't Sopranos creator David Chase's first choice for the role of Tony (Ray Liotta of Goodfellas renown was the top contender but turned it down), now that he's gone, it's impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.

By his own admission, Gandolfini loved the craft of acting but hated the trappings that went along with the job—particularly doing publicity.

But the gentle giant played along. Throughout The Sopranos' six-season run (1999-2007), Gandolfini and his castmates made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles each summer to the TV Critics Tour to plug the upcoming season on HBO.

With rare exception, Gandolfini never gave an answer of more than a few words to any given question and unfailingly referred every question to Chase, the de facto spokesman for the series. It wasn't a matter of Gandolfini being brusque or standoffish; the man simply didn't like to talk about his work.

And it required no effort to believe Gandolfini was that way long before The Sopranos.

Born and raised in Tony Soprano's stomping ground of New Jersey, he worked as a trucker, a bouncer and a nightclub manager in New York before a friend talked him into going to an acting class in the mid-eighties.

"I'd never been around actors before," he told Time magazine years later, "and I said to myself, 'These people are nuts. This is kind of interesting'."

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Gandolfini was hooked. Casting agents began taking note of the bulky actor with the Jersey accent and he began landing walk-on roles in films like The Last Boy Scout and A Stranger Among Us, invariably cast as a henchman or thug. As though to test his acting muscles, Gandolfini made his Broadway debut in 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Gandolfini earned decent reviews for Streetcar, but soon after he was back to bad-guy duty, this time in the 1993 feature True Romance, in which he played a smirking wiseguy called Virgil who has a knockdown brawl with a feisty hooker named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a motel bathroom. It was his biggest movie role to date.

True Romance made Gandolfini and for the next several years he earned support parts in a fast succession of Hollywood films: Angie, Mr. Wonderful, Crimson Tide and Terminal Velocity, in which he played opposite Charlie Sheen. He essayed one of his more memorable portrayals in the 1995 feature Get Shorty as a retired movie stuntman reduced to thug duty.

But a few years later, everything changed for Gandolfini when he morphed into Tony Soprano.

As boss of a fictional New Jersey mob family, Tony was quite capable of cracking heads and bribing politicians, but he was also crippled by anxiety attacks, which lead him to the care of psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

To his fellow wiseguys, he was the undisputed pater familias and leader. On the homefront, Tony loved his long-suffering wife Carmela (Edie Falco) but was a flagrant womanizer. His two children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Junior knew the old man was mobbed up, but knew better than to bring up the topic. Here was a mob boss for the new millennium.

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To his credit, Gandolfini knew he had been handed the role of a lifetime and ran with it. Beyond the three Emmys, he earned an equal number of Screen Actor's Guild awards and was pretty much the reason why The Sopranos is considered the best drama in TV history. The bad news was that the role of Tony Soprano kind of stuck to him.

During The Sopranos' run, and in the years to follow, Gandolfini appeared in several films, but it was always impossible to imagine him as anyone but Tony Soprano.

Gandolfini costarred with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in the 2001 film The Mexican, but even his portrayal of a gay hitman had a little too much Tony in it. That same year he held his own opposite Robert Redford in The Last Castle, but even in the role of a bespectacled, vainglorious military men, there was still a trace of Tony.

More recently, Gandolfini essayed a small but important role in the espionage thriller Zero Dark Thirty and the comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Always good to his friends, he recently turned in a brief comic appearance in the Nickelodeon film Nicky Deuce, costarring his former Sopranos costar Steve Schirripa.

In film and television, Gandolfini was an imposing figure, but that fact in itself is likely testament to his acting abilities. As with most tough guys, there was a softy just beneath the surface.

I was lucky enough to witness it once. On Gandolfini's final appearance on the TV Critics Tour, he had just finished his HBO session and was steaming toward his waiting limo. He moved fast for a big man and had almost made his exit, when he noticed the elderly stage star Elaine Stritch, 82 at the time and waving at him shyly from a doorway.

Deftly brushing aside two-dozen or so journalists, Gandolfini made a beeline for the tiny octogenarian actress, gave her a gentle hug and told her, "I saw you in Show Boat, back in the day. You're one of the reasons I became an actor."

Stritch beamed and blushed and suddenly the press were distracted and asking her questions. And in the blink of an eye, Gandolfini was gone.

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