Tipping our hat ever-so-slightly to Facebook, Broadway.com’s done a little sleuthing and marked Gandolfini’s path from Jersey bouncer to Meisner practitioner to his first years as a New York actor on through to his glory days on HBO and beyond. It starts nearly 48 years in Pascack Valley, the center of Bergen County, in the Garden State.
James Gandolfini is born on September 16, 1961, in Westwood New Jersey, the third child of Italian immigrants and devout Catholics.
His father James works as a bricklayer and cement mason before becoming the head custodian at a Catholic high school in Paramus. Santa, his mom, is a school nutritionist, “the head lunch lady,” as James Jr. later clarified.
Having spent part of their childhood in Italy the family still owns land there, James Sr. and Santa often speak Italian at home “when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about,” Gandolfini recalls on Inside the Actors Studio. “So they didn’t it teach to my sisters or to myself.”
Dad would put speakers outside, blast the tarantella and head out to cut the grass while dressed in black socks with sandals, boxer-like shorts with a high waistband, no shirt and a hat. “Much to my mother’s horror,” Gandolfini has joked.
Gandolfini’s early inspirations include Robert De Niro particularly his performance in Mean Streets and films directed by or starring Robert Redford Jeremiah Johnson, Ordinary People, but he might never have become Tony Soprano were it not for a certain Laurents-Sondheim musical. “The first movie I remember seeing and registering was West Side Story,” Gandolfini remembers. “When I saw that, I went, ‘Wow!’”
The family buys tires from Salvatore Travolta, a former semi-professional football player whose son, John, was becoming a megastar thanks to a certain disco movie. Seeing the poster for Saturday Night Fever in the tire store, the young Gandolfini thinks, “If he can do it, I can do it.” Gandolfini and Travolta have since appeared in five movies together, including the forthcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 in which Travolta is the villainous subway hijacker and Gandolfini is the mayor of New York.
Acting in a few school plays when not playing basketball, Gandolfini graduates from Park Ridge High School in 1979. He’s listed in the yearbook as “Best Flirt” according to Wikipedia or “Best Looking” according to him.
Setting aside any acting aspirations to enroll at Rutgers University, Gandolfini supports himself as a bouncer for an on-campus pub, where he becomes good friends with Roger Bart, future star of The Producers and Young Frankenstein on Broadway. Gandolfini earns a B.A. in communications in 1983 and heads for Manhattan.
Instead of preparing his headshot, Gandolfini gets into the nightlife business, running a club called Private Eyes on 21st Street. “It was straight two nights a week, gay two nights a week, and everything else the other two nights of the week,” he says on Inside the Actors Studio. “I spent a few years there, on the job, just watching people in amazement.”
Eventually, Bart convinces Gandolfini to accompany him to a Meisner-technique acting class. “I was scared to death,” he remembers. Due to his shaky hands, the first exercise— threading a needle in pantomime—felt impossible. “I couldn’t do it. I was so angry and so nervous at the same time.”
Finally uncorking during an exercise with a scene partner, Gandolfini flies into a rage and destroys the place “you know, all that crap that they have onstage”, leaving himself with bleeding hands and a scene partner who runs for the hills. The instructor, however, remains cool. “This is what you have to do,” she says. “This is what people pay for. They don’t pay to see the guy next door.”
Studying the Meisner technique for two years, Gandolfini learns to control his anger and even manipulate it to his advantage. Before scenes, he bangs his head on things or stays up late the night before. “If you’re tired, every single thing that somebody does will piss you off,” he later jokes. “Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It’s silly, but it works.”
Gandolfini first appearance on a New York stage is in Big El’s Best Friend, about a less-than-joyous encounter between a female Elvis fanatic and an Elvis impersonator. He plays the Elvis impersonator.
Next up is Tarantula’s Dancing, produced at the now-defunct West Bank Theatre in the West Village. As Gandolfini later explains, “It was about two people from the Lower East Side. Both of them are out of their minds. I go to her apartment for an iron, and hijinks ensue.”
In addition to productions such as Summer Winds with Naked Angels and One Day Wonder at the Actors Studio, he appears in The Danger of Strangers, which co-star Susan Aston later describes as “a play we did together where I lured him up to the apartment and then killed him.”
Leaving bouncing work behind, Gandolfini supports himself in a number of odd jobs: a bricklayer like his dad, a carpenter, a tree planter, a street bookseller. He also delivers seltzer for a business owned by a Hasidic Jew. The name of the company? “Gimme Seltzer,” he tells Vanity Fair.
Gandolfini is planting trees when Sidney Lumet calls, offering his first movie role, a small part in the 1992 thriller A Stranger Among Us.
Gandolfini moves into a small apartment across the hall from someone he used to date. The woman, it turns out, is friends with a theatrical casting director. Hence he lands his first Broadway gig, as Steve Hubbell alongside Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin in the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The next year, Gandolfini makes his biggest impression yet in the Quentin Tarantino-scripted film True Romance. His big scene features him beating Patricia Arquette to a bloody pulp, then throwing her through a glass shower door before she blows him to pieces with a shotgun. The scene takes fives days to shoot.
Gandolfini lands another Broadway role in a theatrical adaptation of the classic Brando flick On the Waterfront but is fired a week before opening night. As he recalls in Vanity Fair, “I had a lovely discussion with one of the producers, then I got a call telling me I was fired for being too mouthy.” The production closes one week after opening.
In 1997, Gandolfini appears in the L.A. production of Remembrance, a drama about religious conflict in Ireland produced by Sean Penn and starring Penn’s parents. After that, Gandolfini won’t act onstage for over a decade—his career gets sidetracked by a little phenomenon called The Sopranos.
While Gandolfini is jumping from gig to gig, writer/producer David Chase is wondering if he’ll ever be able to cast the lead role for a series he’s developing for HBO about a mob family in New Jersey. A casting agent brings in True Romance, cues the bloody shower scene and says, “This is your guy.” You know what happens next.
Aida Turturro plays Gandolfini's sister in The Sopranos, his wife in Streetcar and his daughter in the film Romance and Cigarettes. His God of Carnage wife Marcia Gay Harden auditions for Aida's part in The Sopranos, but as she tells it, Gandolfini dismisses her because Janice Soprano couldn't be played by someone he'd want to sleep with.
After shooting the final season of The Sopranos, Gandolfini heads to London to shoot a film called In the Loop. Wanting to sample some West End theater, he goes to see Yasmina Reza’s intermission-less comedy God of Carnage, partly because “I’m not big, three-hour, Ibsen-revival kind of man,” he tells The New York Times.
After a chat with the producers, Gandolfini is cast in the Broadway production of God of Carnage as a wholesaler named Michael, the play’s most down-to-earth character. “I like to play people like my parents,” he explains on Inside the Actors Studio. “My parents worked hard. They were honest. They were good people. They’re the kind of people that I love, and the kind of people that I want to show in movies. Because I think they’re getting screwed.”