James Gandolfini

's success came later in his life, when at age 37 he scored the role of Tony Soprano in 1999. He told Newsweek in 2001, "I thought it was a wonderful script. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye."

Before that, he was a character actor, playing a stunt man-turned-henchman in Get Shorty and another henchman in True Romance. He also played the landlord in the 1992 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. And those were big breaks!

A 1988 NY Times article about young New Yorkers moving from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, many times sharing space, features an aspiring actor named Jim Gandolfini:

For most, the process of lugging bed, books and boxes from one neighborhood to another is exasperating. ''Let's not even talk about physically moving - packing everything in boxes and hiring a moving van,'' said Ms. Jimenz, who is now sharing a two-bedroom on 106th Street off Amsterdam Avenue with two others. ''It's being unsettled that bothers me most. It takes so much out of you. I just want to be in one place and build an identity.''

Then there is Jim Gandolfini, who seems to thrive on the apartment-hopping life. Since moving to New York City four years ago, Mr. Gandolfini, 26 years old, has never had his name on a lease, never paid more than $400 a month in rent and never lived in one place more than 10 months. His wanderer's existence has given him sojourns, some as brief as two months, in Hoboken, N.J.; Astoria, Queens; Clinton and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Park Slope and Flatbush in Brooklyn.

''MOVING, to me, is no big deal,'' said Mr. Gandolfini, whose calling is the theater but whose living comes mostly from bartending and construction. ''I have a system down. I throw everything in plastic garbage bags and can be situated in my new place in minutes. Without my name on a lease, I'm in and out. I have no responsibilities.''

The Star-Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno knew

Gandolfini from his first year at Rutgers, and recalls, "The kid from Park Ridge called himself 'Buck' when we first met him on the freshman floor of the Tinsley dorm at Rutgers in New Brunswick. He was — believe it or not — thin in the waist, but broad-shouldered with a head of sandy-colored hair that swept across his forehead, ’70s style. He was a good-looking kid, with a little too much swagger."

There was a time he got drunk and broke a parking gate. I went and got him out of the police station. I was a Navy veteran and still technically in the service, so I put on my uniform to go vouch for him...

Then there was the time we were having a dart-gun fight and I kicked in the metal door to the room where he was hiding just as he was coming out.

When he came to, I took him to St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick to get his forehead stitched up and paid the bill. It was $25, and worth it just to see the scar on his head during all those close-ups on HBO.

DiIonno adds, "A lot of time passed, and our lives took divergent paths, so for me to pretend I know him, or anything about his life now, would be disingenuous," but recalls seeing him at the second season premiere of The Sopranos, "He knew how lucky he was. He knew he was good, but he understood there’s a lot of good actors out there who don’t get the breaks. Gandolfini worked hard for his, playing bit parts all the way up to 'The Sopranos.' He brought his natural Jerseyness to the role and the authenticity won him awards and accolades. He became the star he wanted to be. More important, to him, a respected, workaday actor."

There are also numerous high school photographs of Gandolfini here.