The late James Gandolfini, known for playing Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, wasn’t always the big, bald man we saw on TV. He was actually quite different in his younger days before becoming famous.

Born on September 18, 1961, Gandolfini became famous for his role as Tony Soprano, the mob boss and family leader, on HBO’s The Sopranos. He portrayed Tony as a complex character, sometimes sensitive and other times acting like a violent sociopath. His outstanding performance earned him many awards and worldwide praise.

After a hugely successful six-season run, the series ended in 2007, leaving fans wondering if the blacked-out screen in the end meant the antihero is alive, or dead.

Sadly, the great actor James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, passed away on June 19, 2013, at the age of 51. A heart attack took his life while he was in Italy with his family. At that time, he was in a hotel with his 13-year-old son, Michael.

James Gandolfini had a wife named Deborah Lin, whom he married in 2008. They had a daughter named Liliane, born in 2012. Michael, his son, was from his first marriage to Marcy Wudarski.

In September 2021, Michael talked to the New York Times about trying to portray the complex character that his dad, James Gandolfini, played so well.

He said, “I always thought, ‘I want to make my dad proud. I want to make my dad proud.’” At that time, Michael was 22 years old. He admitted, “I truly wasn’t aware of the legacy of him…My dad was just my dad.”

Even though it might sound like a common thing to say, Michael is a lot like his dad. He inherited many of his father’s features and characteristics, like the sleepy yet welcoming eyes, a mischievous smirk, and a gentle voice mixed with colorful language.

“The pressure is real,” he said of playing the mafia don as a youngster. “Not only was it the feeling of my dad – it was like, Tony Soprano is a f***ing hard character.”

Before James Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, he was just a regular Italian American kid growing up in a modest home in Westwood, New Jersey. His dad worked as the maintenance chief at a Catholic school, and his mom was a lunch lady at a high school. He had a happy and cute childhood, according to his friend Pam Donlan, who later became a well-respected actor in Hollywood.

In 1979, when he was a senior at Park Ridge High School in New Jersey, he was one of the popular kids. He stood just over 6 feet tall.

Excelling in both academics and extra-curricular activities, the Get Shorty star developed his skills as an actor while in high school, where he studied theatre.

“After Gandolfini passed away, Travolta mentioned, ‘My father sold tires to his father. I was his inspiration to get into the business…He would see pictures of me on the wall from movies and he decided that he wanted to be an actor.’”

Before going to Rutgers University and earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, Gandolfini finished his last year of high school with his classmates voting him “best looking” and, not surprisingly, “biggest flirt.”

In an old photo shared by the Park Ridge community on Facebook, Gandolfini is seen with a woman, Donna Lange, both voted as “class flirts.”

“I love this picture of Jimmy and Donna. I always remember him like this, a happy kid with that amazing smile,” says one old friend. Another friend shares, “It’s a great picture of Jim and Donna.”

Duff Lambros, recalling his childhood friend, describes him as having a “quiet confidence” and “a cool dignity.” He adds, “Girls loved him. Guys loved him.” Lambros notes that when James Gandolfini smiled, it wasn’t just his teeth; his eyes lit up, making it feel like the sun was shining.

Travolta, who acted in many movies alongside Gandolfini, recalls him not just as a great actor but also as a wonderful person in real life. Travolta says, “He was a people person first and then everything else. He was this beautiful man, and I love him very much.”

Even though Tony Soprano, the character Gandolfini played, seemed big and powerful, the actor himself was very humble and committed. He jokingly called himself a “260-pound Woody Allen,” highlighting his down-to-earth personality despite playing a larger-than-life character on screen.

American actor James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano, smokes a cigar while he stands in pool, in publicity still for the HBO cable TV series ‘The Sopranos,’ 1999. (Photo by Anthony Neste/Getty Images)

What are your favorite memories of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, or in another role? Please let us know what you think in the comments section below and then share this story so we can hear what others have to say!

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