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'Simpson's' writer/producer remembers James Gandolfini's early acting days

"Violet & Daisy" Premiere - 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

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Actor James Gandolfini arrives at "Violet & Daisy" Premiere during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival held at The Elgin theatre on September 15, 2011 in Toronto, Canada.

James Gandolfini, the actor who played Tony Soprano, died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday on vacation in Italy. He was only 51. Gandolfini played mafia boss Tony Soprano from 1999-2007, winning 3 Emmys and helping to legitimize drama on cable.

Ten years before "The Sopranos," Gandolfini's talent was obvious. Michael Price, now a writer and co-executive producer on "The Simpsons," says around 1990, he was running a little theatre in Newark NJ called The Ironbound Theatre, non-Equity, non-paying. For one of their productions, they were looking for a man to play a garbage collector.

James Gandolfini auditioned, and immediately got the part. He came to one rehearsal, Price remembers, but then had to beg off the production because he was offered a role in Death of a Salesman ... a better role, and for pay. Price said he understood, but he remembered those two short encounters for years to come.

"What an incredible capacity for intensity and realness, " Price said. "I mean, that's what I think made Tony Soprano such an indelible character is that you totally believed that he was this guy, you know, that he was capable of all the, of being this huge range of emotions — you know, loving his family, but also a guy who will kill someone who gets in his way. And of course, he was taken from us way too soon. I'm sure there would have been years and years of amazing performances to come."


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