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LISTEN: Actor Chazz Palminteri Reflects On The Brilliance Of James Gandolfini

'The Thing That Got Me About Him Was He Was Such A Humble Guy'
Chazz Palminteri (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images) and James Gandolfini (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil)

Chazz Palminteri (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images) and James Gandolfini (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil)

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NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Actor James Gandolfini died after suffering cardiac arrest on Wednesday while vacationing in Rome.

He was 51.

The New Jersey native is best known for his portrayal of criminal Tony Soprano in HBO’s landmark drama series “The Sopranos.”

“I do want to say to the people out there, the thing that got me about (Gandolfini) was he was such a humble guy,” actor and writer Chazz Palminteri told WFAN host Mike Francesa on Thursday. “Just a humble, nice, really sweet man.”

Gandolfini had a knack for playing a tough guy, but 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,” David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” said in a statement. “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.”

Dr. Claudio Modini, head of the emergency room at the Policlinic Umberto I hospital, said Gandolfini arrived at the hospital at 10:40 p.m. Wednesday and was pronounced dead at 11 p.m. after resuscitation efforts in the ambulance and hospital failed.

“I loved (“The Sopranos”),” Palminteri told Francesa. “What I loved about the show, and him, it was a combination of a wonderful writer with a perfect actor and a perfect show. He had a writer, which was David Chase, who had the real nerve to say things and do things, and he had the actor to do it. The wonderful thing about James Gandolfini was, to play a character like that you have to have some kind of sensibility where you’re well-liked.

“In other words, no matter what you do, what you say, the audience is still going to like you. There’s only certain actors that could get away with that.”

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey, the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high-school lunch lady.

He attended Rutgers University and worked as a bartender and a nightclub manager before he got his acting start in the New York theater.

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 breakthrough screen role was an appearance as Virgil the hit man in the 1993 movie “True Romance.”

“The wonderful thing about James was he was very vulnerable and very likeable,” Palminteri said. “(It was like), ‘How could you do that and kill that person, but you know what, God I like that guy.’”

Gandolfini’s performance 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 played Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden hunt docudrama “Zero Dark Thirty.” He worked with Chase for the ’60s 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.

Gandolfini and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year, HBO said. The actor and his former wife, Marcy, have a teenage son, Micha.

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