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Standing in public in other people's clothes, pretending to be someone else. It's a strange way for a grown man to make a living.

To many fans, James Gandolfini was Tony Soprano. The mob boss in ratings-busting crime drama The Sopranos had a machiavellian criminal mind, troubled by day-to-day family matters. The actor won legions of fans for his portrayal of a hard man with human frailty.

The role won James three Emmy awards and worldwide fame. The son of a New Jersey bricklayer and a dinner lady, James had drifted into acting. He later explained: “I dabbled a little bit in acting in high school, and then I forgot about it completely. And then at about 25, I went to a class. I don't think anybody in my family thought it was an intelligent choice. I don't think anybody thought I'd succeed, which is understandable. I think they were just happy that I was doing something.”

A role as a gangster in the Quentin Tarantino-scripted film True Romance got him noticed, but for a while risked typecasting the physically imposing actor.

“I don't think I will do a Mafia character again,” he said. “I want to get away from the violence a little bit, because it is starting to bother me personally.”

Sadly, Gandolfini suffered a fatal heart attack aged just 51, bringing his promising post-Sopranos film career to a cruelly premature end.