GQ has an interesting feature story on David Chase and The Sopranos, which includes some vignettes about James Gandolfini. Per the story, Gandolfini struggled with the fame the show brought him, in ways that in retrospect seem unsurprising.
On one occasion, the show’s star simply disappeared for several days, in the middle of an extremely expensive shooting schedule:
The production team had already performed all the acrobatics it could, shooting those few scenes that could be done without its star. The whole operation had been nervously treading water for days; many began to expect the worst—that the pressure, the substances, and the emotional turmoil had pushed Gandolfini over the edge.
Terence Winter, driving into work, heard a newscaster report, “Sad news from Hollywood today…,” and his heart stopped. “It was some drummer for a band,” Winter says. “But I thought, ‘Holy shit! He’s dead.’ ”
Sooner or later, the press, hungry for The Sopranos gossip at the best of times, would get hold of the story, and the upper echelon of producers at Silvercup and at HBO began to prepare a damage-control strategy.
Then, on day four, the main number in the show’s production office rang. It was Gandolfini calling, from a beauty salon in Brooklyn. To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, asking to use the phone. He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home.
Gandolfini came from what per his wikipedia biography sounds like a pure working class background: his father was a bricklayer and mason, and later a high school janitor, and his mother was a lunch lady. He did graduate from college (Rutgers), but information regarding his life in the decade between then and when he first began to find acting success — his first significant break appears to have been a role in a Broadway production of On the Waterfront in 1992 — is sparse.
It sounds like an interesting story: “struggling would-be actor in New York” seems like an unlikely role for a young man from a working class background to manage to sustain for any length of time. That he did so might help explain some of the intensity and apparent authenticity he brought to the role of his most famous character.