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What We Can Learn From James Gandolfini

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James Gandolfini (Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)

There's a tendency to idolize actors after they are gone. It's as if the mere fact that they will never make another movie instantly elevates all of the films and TV shows (including the terrible ones) they shot during their life. The Twitterverse explodes with praise. Suddenly the dark blotches on their personal history—from diva behavior to drug abuse to DUIs—are wiped clean.

And why not? What's to be gained by rehashing their faults?

In the case of the late James Gandolfini, a lot. This flawed man rose from modest beginnings to become one of the most inspiring actors of our time.Born in the early '60s in New Jersey to a working class couple, James Joseph Gandolfini, Jr. was pushed to pursue the American dream—and by American dream we mean doing well in school in order to get a stable job and buy a nice house (ideally close to your parents). Gandolfini made a go of it, graduating from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies. He was on his way.

Except he didn't like where he was going. So instead of continuing on the traditional career track, he moved to New York City and landed a job at the gentlemen's club Private Eyes. While (we suspect) his parents were none too pleased by this turn of events, Gandolfini had a plan. The gig was just a paycheck to allow him to pursue his passion, which happened to be acting. While it's not a particularly unique story, it's one worth repeating. Some risks are worth taking, and that’s lesson number one.

It wasn't instant success for Gandolfini, however. Far from it, actually. He arrived in New York in 1983, but didn't land his first real role until four years later in the low-budget horror comedy "Shock! Shock! Shock!" (Wait; you haven't heard of that one?) Despite a slow start, and long nights at the club, he kept at it, and in 1992 was cast in the Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" alongside Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. While Gandolfini's part was small, he built some momentum and nabbed a starring role in a Tarantino film. It was 1993. The movie was "True Romance." And James Gandolfini had made it. This leads us to lesson number two: Hard work pays off.

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The actor on the series that made him famous, with co-star Edie Falco. (Getty Images)

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Gandolfini trick or treats with son Michael in 2008. (Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic)

The actor continued to work steadily for the next six years, until 1999, when everything changed overnight. The first episode of "The Sopranos" transformed the Jersey boy from a successful character actor to a bona fide star, practically overnight. He was no longer James, or "Jimmy" as his friends called him. He was Tony Soprano.

Riding the wave, Gandolfini took the plunge into marriage later that year and tied the knot with Marcy Wudarski. The couple seemed off to a great start, and Marcy gave birth to their son James in 2000. Gandolfini now had a dream role on a hit series, a beautiful wife, and a newborn son. What could go wrong?

Apparently, a lot. Not long after his baby arrived, Gandolfini entered, but did not complete, a 28-day rehab stint. Rumors began swirling about the star being difficult on set. Though the show had only been running for a few seasons, the demanding schedule and character work required to bring Tony Soprano to life seemed to be taking their toll on the actor, who entered into a sort of dysfunctional marriage with the show.

His behavior became erratic. He would cause logistical nightmares by not showing up to set one day, only to shower the cast and crew with extravagant gifts as an apology the next. He would work himself into a violent rage while preparing for a scene, and destroy items in his trailer before ever stepping in front of the camera. In short, he seemed unable to turn Tony off and James back on.

Not surprisingly, this caused issues in his real-life marriage as well. When Wudarski filed for divorce in 2002, she accused him not only of drug and alcohol abuse, but also of "performing kinky sex with multiple mistresses." Here lies our third lesson from Gandolfini's life: What goes up, must come down.

His reputation damaged, Gandolfini returned to work only to continue his diva-like behavior, disappearing overnight and demanding higher pay. In the midst of this mayhem, however, the show retained a cult-like following and earned its star three Emmys as well as up to $1 million per episode. By the time the final episode of "The Sopranos" aired in 2007, in fact, all fans could think about was when the movie might materialize. All those accusations of drugs, women, and acting out were seemingly forgotten.

Free from a taxing TV production schedule, Gandolfini seized the opportunity and wed former model Deborah Lin in Hawaii in 2008. With a beautiful wife, an 8-year-old son (who served as best man!), and money to burn, he was all but glowing as he stepped out of the church.

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Gandolfini and his widow, Deborah Lin, in December 2012. (Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

For the next few years, his focus shifted from the small screen to the big picture, supporting veterans and serving as a Rutgers booster—focusing his efforts to help the university's football team. In 2010, he produced the HBO film, "Wartorn: 1861-2010," about post-traumatic stress disorder from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan, shining a light on a dark reality that often gets brushed under the rug. In these final actions, Gandolfini reminds us of a universal truth: It's never too late to reinvent yourself.

And just last year, the star changed yet again, becoming a father for the second time. He and Deborah welcomed their daughter, Liliana Ruth, in October, and Gandolfini embraced his new role as a true family man. During the last six months of his life, he was often seen with his loved ones, frequently with Liliana in his arms. It's not surprising, therefore, that he was with his son, now 13, at the time of his death. The two men were on a boys' trip to Italy when tragedy struck.

As more details surface about Gandolfini's sudden death, it's becoming clearer that perhaps what made him such an inspiring actor was the fact that he was such a flawed man. Gandolfini's life teaches us that our greatest learning tools may be our mistakes.

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