This Is James Gandolfini, He's Not Tony

This undated publicity photo, released by HBO, shows actor James Gandolfini in his role as Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey crime family portrayed in HBO's "The Sopranos." The acclaimed dramatic series starts its sixth season March 12, following a 20-month hiatus. (AP Photo/HBO, Barry Wetcher)
AP Photo/HBO, Barry Wetcher
Not long after "The Sopranos" began airing, James Gandolfini remembers someone banging on the door of his Manhattan apartment late at night.

"So I opened the door and the guy just turns white," Gandolfini said in a recent magazine interview. "All of a sudden I realize, `Oh ... he thinks I'm Tony."'

Any blurring of the line between actor Gandolfini and troubled mob boss Soprano is understandable given the towering achievement of Gandolfini's performance, which resumes Sunday on HBO. The 45-year-old actor has portrayed the iconic criminal for eight years now, passionately channeling his similarities into the character.

"I'm playing an Italian lunatic from New Jersey, and that's basically what I am," Gandolfini has said.

The actor and character differ in many ways, of course, including their attitudes toward homicide. While Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini is exceptionally modest and obsessive — he has described himself as "a 260-pound Woody Allen."

He didn't begin acting until his mid-20s, then became a little-known character actor before "The Sopranos" made him one of the most recognizable faces in television history.

Gandolfini is notoriously press-shy and declines nearly all interview requests — including those from The Associated Press for this article. His usual response is that there are so many other actors more interesting than him.

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But the man behind the mobster is far from boring — largely because of his unlikely path to stardom and his unique relation to it.

Gandolfini grew up in New Jersey. His father was a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and his mother was the cafeteria chief at another Catholic school. Both parents, having spent much of their childhood in Italy, often spoke Italian — though it didn't rub off much on their son.

"My father always said a million times, `We're peasants,"' Gandolfini told Rolling Stone in 2001, explaining that he finds fame "ugly." "It's just a little odd for me, to get that slightly different treatment sometimes. And I'm uncomfortable with it. ... I want nothing to do with privilege."

Gandolfini attended nearby Rutgers University and graduated with a degree in communications. When he was 19, Gandolfini's girlfriend of two years died in a car accident. He mentioned her in accepting his third Emmy, in 2003.

"I might not have done what I've done" without her death, he told GQ, adding that the experience led him to seek a release through acting. He would later describe the reason he acts as to "vomit my emotions out of me."

After college, Gandolfini moved to New York, where he worked as a bartender, bouncer and nightclub manager. When he was 25, he joined a friend of a friend in an acting class, which he continued for several years.

Gandolfini's big break was a Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" where he played Steve, one of Stanley Kowalski's poker buddies. His film debut was in Sidney Lumet's "A Stranger Among Us" (1992).

The role that perhaps most hinted at Gandolfini's talent for fusing violence with charisma — which he would perfect in Tony Soprano — was the tough he played in Tony Scott's 1993 film, "True Romance." In a memorable scene, he beats Patricia Arquette's character to a pulp while offering flirtatious banter such as, "You gotta lot of heart kid."

Scott recalls Gandolfini's audition clearly: "You don't have to be a brain surgeon to spot someone who's got that much talent."

"He's such a unique combination of charming and dangerous, and it's inherent in who he is," he said.