Born and raised in New Jersey, press-shy James Gandolfini forged a film career as a prolific character actor before finally emerging as a bona fide star in the critically-lauded HBO series The Sopranos. After earning his college degree in 1983, Gandolfini headed to New York to study at the Actors Studio. Supporting himself for almost ten years as a bartender and nightclub manager, Gandolfini's major break came in 1992 with a role in a Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, and his film debut in Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us. Following small parts in several 1993 films, including the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance, Gandolfini played more substantial roles as one of the heavies in Terminal Velocity (1994), Geena Davis' neighborhood boyfriend in Angie (1994), one of the submarine crew in Crimson Tide (1995), and a stuntman-turned-Mob enforcer in Get Shorty (1995). Equally gifted at playing characters on either side of the law, Gandolfini appeared as the violent neighbor who assaults Robin Wright Penn in She's So Lovely (1997) and a cop in Lumet's legal drama Night Falls on Manhattan (1997).
Gandolfini played supporting roles in several more films, including Fallen (1998) and A Civil Action (1998), before he was cast as the head of a dysfunctional Mafia family in The Sopranos. Anchored by Gandolfini's superbly-nuanced performance as Prozac-popping, mother-bedeviled capo Tony Soprano, The Sopranos was hailed as a TV masterpiece for its alternately funny, surreal and deadly-serious look at New Jersey Mob life. Though he was passed over for the Emmy, Gandolfini won the SAG and Golden Globe Awards for Lead Actor in a TV drama for The Sopranos' 1999 season. During the series break, Gandolfini appeared as a slimy pornographer in 8MM (1999).