James Gandolfini dead at 51: ‘Sopranos’ star suffers heart attack in Italy

James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-bred actor whose Mafia-boss character survived six seasons of mob hits and panic attacks on “The Sopranos,” died Wednesday in Italy. He was 51.

The man behind Tony Soprano was with his teenage son, Michael, 13, when he suffered a massive heart attack, a source close to the barrel-chested actor said.

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“I loved him,” said Dominic Chianese, who played Corrado (Junior) Soprano. “I cried because he was just a sweetheart.”

In 2003, after his bruising contract dispute with HBO held up production of the show, the stubborn but generous actor paid his co-stars back for the delay, handing them five-figure sums from his new deal.

The same year, Gandolfini joked about “The Sopranos” losing an Emmy to buttoned-up rival “The West Wing.”

“We’re thieves and crooks. They show me in my underwear far too much,” he quipped.

For his roles, he drew on his own humble upbringing, raised by a high school custodian father and a lunch lady mother who emigrated from Italy. She pushed her son to attend Rutgers over his objections.

“I basically went to college because I was the first male Italian born in America,” Gandolfini said on “Inside the Actors Studio” in 2004. “It was important to my mother. . . . The first night they had a five-keg party there and I said, ‘What was I fighting about?’ ”

After Rutgers, he landed a gig at the Manhattan club Private Eyes, where an eclectic clientele provided the actor with plenty of acting material.

“The club was straight two nights a week, gay two nights a week and kind of everything else two nights a week, so I spent a few years just watching people . . . and saw a lot of interesting things,” he said in the interview.