The Inside Story Of James Gandolfini’s Death — And How ‘The Sopranos’ Slowly Helped Destroy Him

Published March 16, 2024

At around 10 p.m. on June 19, 2013, James Gandolfini's 14-year-old son Michael found him unconscious on the bathroom floor of their hotel in Rome. Within an hour, he was pronounced dead at the age of just 51.

James Gandolfini Death

UPI/Alamy Stock PhotoWhile vacationing with his family in Rome on June 19, 2013, “The Sopranos” actor James Gandolfini died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of just 51.

In the 2007 finale of The Sopranos, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano’s fate is left unclear. The enigmatic final scene of the iconic HBO series allowed shocked fans to debate whether or not Soprano had been killed. And six years later, when series lead James Gandolfini died at just 51 on June 19, 2013, fans around the world were once again left shocked and devastated.

Gandolfini, who had played Tony Soprano for six seasons starting in 1999, had become a beloved figure in American culture. His performance as the violent but sensitive mobster earned him three Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama, and helped changed the face of television forever.

But while Gandolfini was winning awards and The Sopranos was being called the greatest show in television history, he was secretly living through both a painful divorce and intense struggles with drugs and alcohol that wreaked havoc on the show and had friends and family fearing for his life.

Despite this, James Gandolfini eventually closed out his role to great acclaim. Still young — Gandolfini was in his 40s when The Sopranos ended in 2007 — he went on to act in other projects, including Broadway plays and Hollywood movies. Gandolfini’s future in show business seemed bright, and he expressed enthusiasm about the different kinds of roles he might play as he got older.

That makes James Gandolfini’s death all the more tragic. In 2013, he flew to Italy with his family to accept an award from the Taormina Film Festival and to explore his Italian roots. But while there on June 19, Gandolfini’s teenage son Michael found him collapsed in their hotel room bathroom.

Later that night, James Gandolfini died of a heart attack at the age of 51. This is the story of how James Gandolfini died and the tragic downward spiral the preceded his untimely demise.

How James Gandolfini Became An Unlikely Leading Man

James Gandolfini was born on September 18, 1961, in New Jersey and grew up in a working class family. His mother was a high school cafeteria chef, while his father worked several different jobs, including as a janitor and a bricklayer.

In high school, Gandolfini played sports but also acted in productions of Arsenic and Old Lace and Can-Can. Though Gandolfini went on to work as a bouncer, bartender, and nightclub manager after graduating from college, his interest in acting was revived when a friend took him to an acting class.

After appearing in small roles in a number of films while also working in theater, Gandolfini started to be cast in gangster-type roles. In 1997, he fatefully auditioned for the part of Tony Soprano in the HBO mobster drama The Sopranos.

“I thought it was a wonderful script,” Gandolfini told Newsweek in 2001. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye.”

James Gandolfini As Tony Soprano

Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock PhotoJames Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, a role that changed his life — and the future of television.

But James Gandolfini was hired. And his nuanced performance as Tony Soprano suddenly put him on the map as an actor in ways he never dreamed possible. As Gandolfini explained, he used unorthodox methods to tap into Tony’s rage, such as walking around with a rock in his shoe, staying up all night, or hitting himself in the head.

Those methods seemed to work. Years later, after James Gandolfini’s death, series creator David Chase described the actor as a genius.

He was “one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” Chase told The New York Times, adding: “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes… I remember telling him many times: ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”

But according to Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers (2021) by James Andrew Miller, Gandolfini sometimes struggled as he tapped into the dark parts of himself to play the mobster. More than once, James Gandolfini remarked: “You don’t understand what this is doing to me.”

While The Sopranos amassed millions of fans and revolutionized television, the seeds for James Gandolfini’s death were already being planted.

The Private Struggles That Preceded James Gandolfini’s Death

The Sopranos Cast

HBOPart of the cast of The Sopranos appearing in an episode in 2000.

As The Sopranos received more and more acclaim — the show ultimately was nominated for 112 Emmys and won 21 — James Gandolfini’s conduct sometimes made network executives deeply anxious, from drug and alcohol binges to disappearing for days at a time. They feared that such erratic behavior might even lead to James Gandolfini’s death.

“We were concerned about Gandolfini staying alive,” HBO CEO Jeff Bewkes remarked to Miller. “Occasionally he would go on a bender or a coke binge. We had to stop production.”

As Miller writes in his book, Gandolfini sometimes felt “dirty” while acting as Tony. He pushed back against some script ideas, particularly one which called for him to masturbate in a gas station bathroom (Gandolfini reluctantly filmed the scene, but it ended up getting cut).

The show, with its dark and violent themes, also required Gandolfini to tap into his own inner demons. He’d struggled with substance abuse since his late teens and early 20s, which the actor admitted had “progressed through the years.” And as his fame intensified, so did his addictions.

Gandolfini frequently appeared late to shoots — if he showed up at all — which sometimes cost HBO millions of dollars. In 2003, Gandolfini’s family and the network even tried to stage an intervention. But as soon as Gandolfini walked in and saw his employers and loved ones gathered around, the actor barked: “Oh, fuck this. Fuck all of you.” And then: “Fire me.”

Tony Soprano

YouTubeTony Soprano killing a man during a season one episode. To portray the mobster, James Gandolfini had to tap into his own dark side.

James Gandolfini was Tony Soprano. Firing him wasn’t an option. But his bad behavior continued over the years. In 2005, he failed to appear as a presenter for the Golden Globes telecast, and was later found severely drunk and making snow angels (there was no snow) in front of his hotel. Gandolfini’s younger co-star, Michael Imperioli, presented instead.

Yet for all the network executives’ concerns, James Gandolfini would always eventually show up to work. Despite the controversial ending of The Sopranos in 2007, his performance was consistently lauded. When the series ended, the actor seemed to have a long career ahead of him and began booking other roles.

But in 2013, James Gandolfini died suddenly at the age of 51.

The Story Of How James Gandolfini Died In 2013

In June 2013, James Gandolfini flew to Italy with his wife Deborah Lin, infant daughter Liliana, and 13-year-old son, Michael. The occasion was to accept an award from the Taormina Film Festival and participate in a roundtable conversation on the topic of American cinema. But Gandolfini was also looking forward to exploring his Italian heritage.

How Did James Gandolfini Die

Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock PhotoJames Gandolfini with his wife, Deborah Lin, and son Michael from his previous marriage.

After touring Italy, the actor and his family returned to Rome. They had a “marvelous time” in the Italian capital on June 19, but then Gandolfini fell ill around 10 p.m. His son Michael reportedly found him collapsed in the bathroom at the Boscolo Exedra Hotel and called reception for help.

“He just felt bad and his son called reception. They (staff) went to the room. And as soon as they saw that something was wrong they immediately called an ambulance that brought him to hospital,” hotel spokeswoman Laura Conti explained to USA TODAY in the aftermath of James Gandolfini’s death.

Gandolfini was immediately taken to the Policlinico Umberto I hospital. The actor was still alive, and doctors worked frantically to save his life. But there was nothing they could do. James Gandolfini died that night at the age of 51.

Though there was some speculation in Italian media about the cause of James Gandolfini’s death — USA Today reports that he was unpopular among some Italians because of how The Sopranos “whitewashed” the Mafia — there was nothing salacious about the actor’s passing. An autopsy soon confirmed what the Italian doctors had suspected: James Gandolfini died of a massive heart attack.

The Tragic Aftermath Of James Gandolfini’s Death

James Gandolfini’s death shocked his friends, family, co-stars, and fans. Despite any qualms HBO had with the actor in the past, there was no denying that he’d raised the network’s profile and the company released a heartfelt statement about his passing. They also aired The Sopranos episode “Where’s Johnny” ending with a title card which read: “HBO mourns the loss of James Gandolfini, a beloved member of the HBO family.”

Death Of James Gandolfini

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock PhotoJames Gandolfini was remembered fondly by his family, friends, co-stars, and fans after his 2013 death.

Ten years after his passing, his former co-stars also made sure the mark the anniversary of James Gandolfini’s death. Many of them spoke with Vanity Fair and shared their fond memories of him as an actor and a father.

“I wish he was still alive,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who starred with Gandolfini his final Enough Said (2013), remarked. “I miss that guy.”

He is remembered by many for his kindness and generosity, but also for how he changed television. The Sopranos, with James Gandolfini as its star, ushered in a new golden era of television. And Tony Soprano’s complicated character — violent but sensitive, a killer but also a family man — marked a new trend of anti-heroes on TV.

“We went to some dark places as characters on the show, very emotional places,” his co-star Imperioli said. “We trusted each other and had each other’s backs. We also had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. I acted with Jim more than I’ve acted with any other actor in my career, probably more than I ever will with another actor. And for that, I’m really grateful.”

In the wake of James Gandolfini’s death, many such tributes poured in, each from one of the many people whose lives and careers he touched throughout his short yet momentous time in the spotlight.

After reading about James Gandolfini’s death at the age of 51, go inside the tragic story of Robin Williams’s death by suicide. Then, learn about the sudden death of beloved television star John Ritter.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.