It was the face that changed the face of television, if you believe all the commentary when "The Sopranos" ended after 86 episodes, "the richest achievement in the history of television," as David Remnick called it in the New Yorker magazine. But James Gandolfini did not believe he would be cast as Tony Soprano. "They'll hire some f---- pretty boy," he's recalled thinking at the time. "I was shocked when I got the part."
By the time HBO launched "The Sopranos" in 1999, Gandolfini, a native of New Jersey, had appeared in mostly small roles in some 20 films, playing his share of thugs. "I had no interest in doing the dapper don kind of deal in The Sopranos," he said during the first season. "Human frailty and confusion are what interest me... People who just bludgeon everything as they go along, that's easy to do."
There was plenty of murder, menace and mayhem such as in these scenes with Joe Pantoliano (lower left) and Steve Van Zandt (right) -- not to mention nudity and foul language, which alone distinguished it from the prime-time series on broadcast television, which are prevented by Federal Communications Commission regulations from going as far.
But the show was most praised for its sometimes humorous, often dark insights into family life, and for the nuanced performances of the entire ensemble. In the very last scene of the series, Tony sits in a diner with his wife and son, played by Edie Falco and Robert Iler.
Gandolfini has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series every season of "The Sopranos" save one, and has won three times. Here he regards his first Emmy in 2000. He has been nominated again in 2007.
Credit: LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty
Thanks to the show, James Gandolfini has reigned as a kind of king, sometimes literally: Here he is King of the Krewe of Bacchus as they roll in the Mardi Gras parade through the uptown area of New Orleans on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007.
Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Members of the cast have talked about how the show engendered a sense of family among them. Here Gandolfini is flanked by two of the actresses in the show Edie Falco, who played his wife, and Lorraine Bracco, who played his psychiatrist, at a party to launch a DVD from one of the later seasons of the series.
Michael Imperioli, left, who played Gandolfini's nephew on the show, appears with him at at an event announcing a partnership between HBO an Cingular Wireless in 2005.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES/Evan Agostini
James Gandolfini with his son Michael in 2004. His actual family life has been more complicated
Credit: GETTY IMAGES/Paul Hawthorne
There were mixed emotions in Bloomfield, N.J., on the site for the filming of the final episode of "The Sopranos" March 22, 2007, when James Gandolfini and Edie Falco posed for this picture.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES/Arnaldo Magnani
If the last season of "The Sopranos" offered little hope for a happy outcome for Tony (top), the actor who played him (at reportedly about a million dollars per episode) has a much more open future. He has a three-year deal with HBO to create original programming, and is planning to play Ernest Hemingway. Will he miss Tony Soprano? "It's more than time."