Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, N.J., the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.
While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exceptionally modest and obsessive — he described himself as "a 260-pound 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 what he does, and does it extremely well."
After earning a degree in communications from Rutgers University, 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 first 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).
Director Tony Scott, who killed himself in August 2012, had praised Gandolfini's talent for fusing violence with charisma — which he would perfect in Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini played a tough guy in Tony Scott's 1993 film "True Romance" who beat Patricia Arquette's character to a pulp while offering such jarring, flirtatious banter as, "You got a lot of heart kid."
Scott called Gandolfini "a unique combination of charming and dangerous."
Gandolfini continued with supporting roles in "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Get Shorty" (1995), "The Juror" (1996), Lumet's "Night Falls on Manhattan" (1997), "She's So Lovely" (1997), "Fallen" (1998) and "A Civil Action" (1998). But it was "True Romance" that piqued the interest of Chase.
He shared a Broadway stage with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in "God of Carnage" when he received the best-actor Tony nod. He was in "On the Waterfront" with David Morse and was an understudy in a revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1992 starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.