Gandolfini, 51, who died on Wednesday while on holiday in Rome, refused to be bound by his star-making role in the HBO series that brought him three Emmy Awards during its six-season run.
“He was a genius,” said the show’s creator David Chase. “Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.”
Dr Claudio Modini, head of the emergency department at the Policlinic Umberto I hospital in Rome, said Gandolfini suffered a cardiac arrest. The actor arrived at the hospital at 8.40pm but died within an hour after resuscitation efforts in the ambulance and hospital failed, he said.
Modini said an autopsy would be performed today.
Michael Kobold, a family friend, told reporters in Rome that a family member discovered Gandolfini in his hotel room, but he declined to say whom. NBC quoted Antonio D’Amore, manager of the Boscolo Exedra hotel in Rome, as saying it was Gandolfini’s 13-year-old son, Michael.
Organisers of Sicily’s Taormina Film Festival were scrambling to put together a tribute to Gandolfini, who had been expected to attend the closing ceremony this weekend and receive an award. They said he will instead be honoured with a tribute “remembering his career and talent”.
Just randomly walked past what I think is James Gandolfini's apt building in Tribeca. This was outside. pic.twitter.com/4eiQbzSqW9— J. Camm (@JCamm_) June 21, 2013
Mario Sesti and Tiziana Rocca said they had spoken to Gandolfini hours before his death “and he was very happy to receive this prize and be able to travel to Italy”.
Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela on The Sopranos, remembered him as a “man of tremendous depth and sensitivity”.
“I am shocked and devastated by Jim’s passing,” she said. “I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague. My heart goes out to his family.”
Joe Gannascoli, who played Vito Spatafore on the drama series, said he was shocked and heartbroken.
“Fifty-one and leaves a kid — he was newly married. His son is fatherless now... It’s way too young.”
Gandolfini and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year. Michael is the son of the actor and his former wife, Marcy.
Gandolfini’s role in The Sopranos was his ticket to fame, but he evaded being stereotyped as a mobster after the drama’s breathtaking blackout ending in 2007.
He was upbeat about the work he was getting post- Tony Soprano. “I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” Gandolfini said recently. “I like them. I like the way they’re shot; they’re shot quickly. It’s all about the scripts — that’s what it is — and I’m getting some interesting little scripts.”
He played then-CIA director Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama Zero Dark Thirty. He worked with Chase for the 1960s period drama Not Fade Away, in which he played the old-school father of a wannabe rocker. And in Andrew Dominick’s crime flick Killing Them Softly, he played an aged, washed-up hit man.
On Broadway, he garnered a best actor Tony Award nomination for 2009’s God of Carnage.
A host of celebrities paid tribute to the popular actor on Twitter.
Bette Midler wrote: “The great James Gandolfini passed away today. Only 51. I can’t believe it.”
“An extraordinary actor. RIP, Mr Gandolfini,” wrote Robin Williams.
His Sopranos co-star Michael Imperioli said: “Jimmy treated us like family with a generosity, loyalty and compassion that is rare in this world.”
While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exception-ally modest and obsessive — he described himself as “a 260lb Woody Allen”.
In past interviews, his cast mates had far more glowing descriptions to offer.
“I had the greatest sparring partner in the world, I had Muhammad Ali,” said Lorraine Bracco, who, as Tony’s psychiatrist Dr Melfi, went one-on-one with Gandolfini in their penetrating therapy scenes.
“He cares [about] what he does, and does it extremely well.”