Nightly News   |  June 20, 2013

Gandolfini unpretentious, shy and indebted to military

He played a bad man who struggled with goodness, and made the audience care about Tony Soprano.  But in real life, James Gandolfini couldn’t have been less like his character on “The Sopranos.” NBC’s Brian Williams reports.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> among his fans and millions of americans, just last night, where were you when you heard the news moments regarding the death of james gandolfino. he was just 51 years old. italy with members of his family prior to attending a film festival this weekend and busy with new projects and a pilot for hbo . died of an apparent heart attack , which he suffered after returning to his hotel. those who knew him and loved him described him today as a unique character who left us with one of the great characters of all time.

>> are you in the mafia?

>> am i in the what?

>> reporter: in real life he once said the violence he was forced to portray made him feel sick to his stomach. he consulted with real life wise guys on how soprano, they told him never to wear shorts.

>> if you are in the waste management business, everybody assumes are you mobbed up.

>> reporter: he played a bad man that struggled with goodness and was so well liked in life, it seemed like all of hollywood and millions of us feeling the same way.

>> i was stunned. shocked.

>> he was a tremendous, tremendous actor.

>> i loved him.

>> reporter: edie falco says the love between tony and carmella was "one of the greatest i've ever known." show creator said gandolfini was a genius. james gandolfini played a made man, tony soprano and made us care when his cold-blooded character suffered panic attacks. we cared about all of the characters, but there was tony in the center. he didn't have killer good looks, but if looks could kill, tony's eyes alone could destroy lesser men.

>> we're in a situation where everybody involved knows the stakes, and if you can accept those stakes, you got to do certain things.

>> reporter: james gandolfini , born in 1961 into a working class north jersey household. his italian immigrant father drove the language at home. he tended bar, drove a truck, attended rutgers and then took an acting gig and was hooked. he recently played a down and out hit man in "killing them softly." the mayor of new york city and later the director of the cia in "zero dark thirty."

>> what else have you done for us?

>> nothing.

>> reporter: on broad way in "god of carnage," he morphed from a yuppy poser to full-on thug and earned him an appropriately named tony nomination. in life, the big, shy actor could not have been less tony-like. he spoke quietly with precision, funny and unpretentious. both tortured by his success and grateful for it, and loyal to those who helped him on the way up. he often said he felt indebted to members of the military for their service. he visited them in war zones and later hosted hbo documentaries on post traumatic stress and wounded veterans.

>> honor, duty, loyalty to your country. it hit me. i guess some people forget about that. or don't think about it. and i think --

>> reporter: i understand. his role as tony set the bar for television portrayals, earning him emmys and golden globes and helping to rocket hbo to premium status. "the sopranos" ran for six seasons, 86 episodes. it wasn't for everyone, it rewrote modern-day depiction of the mob. hardly the elegant god father figure we had previouses come to know. but closest to what he knew from life. and a fellow cast member put it upon reacting to the news last night, at least he died in italy. james gandolfini leaves behind his wife, teenage son, and infant daughter.