(CNN) -- You knew Tony Soprano from the small things.
The way he chewed his cigar in the opening credits of "The Sopranos." The way he shuffled to get his newspaper, sloppily clad in a white bathrobe. The way his voice changed, from a schmooze to a bark, when he talked to his psychiatrist.
The way he killed.
James Gandolfini was a master of the small things.
"I remember telling him many times: 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart,' " David Chase, who created "The Sopranos," said in a statement.
Gandolfini died Wednesday night while on vacation in Italy. He was 51. The cause of death was not announced but was believed to be a heart attack.
Before "The Sopranos," Gandolfini -- a one-time truck driver and bartender who didn't turn to acting until he was in his mid-20s -- was a well-regarded character actor on stage and screen.
He had a small role in the 1992 Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, and appeared in such films as the Quentin Tarantino-written "True Romance" (1993), "Get Shorty" (1995) and "A Civil Action" (1998). Though his roles were limited, he invested them with beauty and invention.
But he appeared destined for a career as the supporting actor until "The Sopranos" came along.
"The Sopranos" was TV on a knife's edge. The HBO show, which put the cable network on the map for original material, could have been farce, could have been tragedy, could have been slasher film or kitchen-sink drama or gangster-movie parody. And, in fact, it was all these things, held together on screen by Gandolfini as woebegone Mafia chief (or was that "waste management professional"?) Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano was an unusual protagonist, especially for a television show: a violent, brutal mob boss, a beleaguered patriarch, a calculating businessman. It was as if "The Godfather's" Sonny, Vito and Michael Corleone had been combined into one hulking bear of a figure.
It could have been otherwise.
Gandolfini was one of three finalists for the role, Alan Sepinwall observed in his terrific TV history, "The Revolution Was Televised." He was chosen because, Chase said, "the show I envisioned is the show that's got Jimmy in it. It's a much darker show with Jimmy in it."
"At one time, I had said that this thing could be like a live-action 'Simpsons,' " Chase told Sepinwall. "Once I saw him do it, I thought, 'No, that's not right. It can be absurdist, it can have a lot of stupid s*** in it, but it should not be a live-action 'Simpsons.' "
In fact, what it became was the best-written show in TV history, according to a recent survey by the Writers Guild of America. Many episodes were as rich as novels, or as finely wrought as a good short story.
Writing, however, will only take you so far; you need actors to inhabit those characters. And with Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Lorraine Bracco and so many more, "The Sopranos" gave life to the scripts.
Fans can pick their favorites, but two episodes stand out for Gandolfini's performances. One, "Whitecaps," includes a scene between him and Falco (as Tony's wife, Carmela) that was as raw and painful as watching an argument between your parents. (If the pair had ever starred in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", ticket-sellers could have made a fortune.) The other, "Join the Club," features an out-of-body experience in which Tony -- in a coma -- imagines he's an optics salesman named Kevin Finnerty. Here, Gandolfini drops Tony's New Jersey accent and with it, his tough-guy veneer. He's suddenly reasonable, open, somehow brighter.
It's easy to confuse actors with their most famous roles; with this one episode, Gandolfini showed that he was no more Tony Soprano than he was Kevin Finnerty, but that he was playing them. Brilliantly.
"If anything, Gandolfini often took things further than Chase had planned," Sepinwall wrote. In the pilot, a scene "called for Tony to slap Christopher (Imperioli) lightly across the face; instead, Gandolfini picked up the smaller Imperioli to make his displeasure clear."
(He worked to get himself into Tony's frame of mind, Gandolfini told "Inside the Actors Studio," as noted in The New York Times' obituary. He'd stay up all night, put a rock in his shoe. "It's silly, but it works," he said.)
"The Sopranos" gave Gandolfini fame and wealth; he got in a contract dispute before the fifth season, eventually winning a contract worth around $13 million, according to a Variety report at the time. But instead of pursuing Hollywood leading roles, he immersed himself in his craft and his interests. He played a general in "In the Loop" and the CIA director in "Zero Dark Thirty," neither role showy or outsized. He starred in the Broadway production of "God of Carnage" and was nominated for a Tony. He produced documentaries about wounded soldiers.
Among his last roles was in Chase's little-seen "Not Fade Away," which came out last year. In it, Gandolfini plays another New Jersey sad sack, this one a 1960s grocer failing to connect with his rock 'n' roll-besotted son. He could have played the part as a "Great Santini"-like martinet, or a befuddled softie, or an ignorant suburban climber. Instead, he manages to fill it with grace notes, amused one minute, frustrated the next, finally a loving father quietly handing his son some money as the boy prepares to drive away. He was a complicated, three-dimensional figure, and he gave the movie unexpected depth.
Gandolfini will almost certainly be best remembered for Tony Soprano, his role of a lifetime. It's a shame that lifetime was so brief. The master of the small things left a legacy that looms large.