James Gandolfini

“What kind of a man are you?” James Gandolfini half asked, half wept, his hot eyes bouncing off Billy Bob Thornton’s imperturbable face in the Coen Brothers’ black and white existential drama The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). If the same question is asked of the actor himself, the answer can be found in his character’s name: Big Dave Brewster.

Gandolfini, who died this week while on holiday in Italy, age 51, was big, in more than one sense. Gandolfini’s physical size consumed a hefty portion of the frame, but his might as an actor arose from his remarkable ability to add gravitas to virtually any character those wide shoulders carried.

When the creations he incarnated — often tough, volatile and down in the mouth people — clicked with Gandolfini in special ways (such as the performance for which he will be best remembered: the shrink-frequenting mafia boss in HBO’s The Sopranos) he created magic.

The Sopranos featured his marquee performance — a big, juicy, emotionally expansive leading role — but mostly Gandolfini was a character actor who infused small parts with great impact. “I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things…it’s all about the scripts,” he told the Miami Herald in April, and his bits and pieces film CV reflects this.

Recapping the cinematic roles of an actor with a resume as long as his inevitably invites cries of “how could you forget <insert title here>.” Gandolfini’s first major gig was in the Quentin Tarantino-written crime drama True Romance (1993) from director Tony Scott. The performance pulled no punches, to say the least: Gandolfini’s henchman character savagely beat Patricia Arquette, who flipped him the bird as she was thrown like a piece of meat around a hotel room. The violent criminal would become his trademark role.

IMDB list close to 50 film and TV appearances attached to his name, among them Crimson Tide (1995), Get Shorty (1995), 8MM (1999), Surviving Christmas (2004), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013).

Interviews indicate Gandolfini had a workman-like attitude to his craft. “I’m an actor… I do a job and I go home. Why are you interested in me? You don’t ask a truck driver about his job,” he told one journalist. That attitude seemed to be reflected in real-life blow-ups, including an altercation with a pedestrian who was caught filming him — and subsequently treated to a line that could have come from any number of the late actor’s scripts: “I’m gonna break your fucking face.”

Gandolfini found a comedic pitch that suited his trademark demeanour hand in glove in Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009), playing a “fish ass” chewing armchair general who steamrolled between reckless outbursts and moments of droll humour. “At the end of a war you need some soldiers left,” he said, “or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

In Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), a gritty rumination on the faltering US economy, Gandolfini contributed one of his pedigree performances as Mickey, an alcoholic assassin for hire. The script gave him the kind of lines he loved to chew through, though Gandolfini often hid that zeal behind a mask of disdain. “I’ve been drinking since before you came out of your father’s cock,” he spat at Brad Pitt. “Don’t tell me what I do.”

He is survived by his wife Deborah, son Michael and eight-month-old daughter Liliana.