HACKENSACK, N.J. _ James Gandolfini once spent the entire time allotted for an interview trying to make the case that he was the least interesting story The Record could write about "The Sopranos." The Westwood, N.J., native then proceeded to name co-star after co-star who would make better copy.
Millions of his fans disagreed. When Gandolfini, a notoriously publicity-shy actor who loved his work but not all the trappings of fame, died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack at age 51, his death stunned the world. The shocking loss was felt especially in North Jersey, where Gandolfini, the son of Italian immigrants, had grown up and filmed the HBO series that made the character actor a household name and an improbable sex symbol.
As the news came out, the tributes began to stream in.
Governor Chris Christie issued a statement calling the death an "awful shock" and praising Gandolfini as "a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy. I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically, Tony Soprano. I have gotten to know Jimmy and many of the other actors in 'The Sopranos' cast and I can say that each of them are an individual New Jersey treasure."
Vincent Curatola, a Bergen County, N.J., resident who co-starred with Gandolfini on "The Sopranos" and in two movies, praised his friend as an actor and a man.
"He is one of those few actors who was so talented that you could never catch him acting," Curatola, who played mobster Johnny Sack, said Wednesday evening _ the shock so new that he spoke of his friend in both the present and past tense. "Jimmy was one of those unassuming people ... modest to the end. He was the best acting lesson I ever had. It was the ease with which he convinces you that he is that character _ on TV and stage."
"Sopranos" creator David Chase, who most recently directed Gandolfini in the film "Not Fade Away," released a statement about Gandolfini, saying, "He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone.
"For (wife) Deborah and (son) Michael and (daughter) Lilliana this is crushing. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."
Gandolfini was born in Westwood and grew up with two sisters (like Tony Soprano, he once noted) in Park Ridge, N.J. His late father, James Gandolfini Sr., was director of facilities at Paramus Catholic High School for 40 years. His mother, Santa, worked for 20 years as cafeteria manager at Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest.
"He was devoted to his family," James Vail, president of Paramus Catholic, said of the actor, who participated in a fundraiser for the school several years ago. "He's identified with 'The Sopranos' but in real life he was much different. He was very kind. He was very supportive of the school. He was a very dynamic guy and you enjoyed being in his presence."
"He was raised right, and just a regular guy," Vail said.
Gandolfini attended Park Ridge High School, where he appeared in school plays but never showed an inkling that he'd become an actor, classmates there have said, before moving on to Rutgers University, graduating in 1983 with a degree in communications. He once told Time magazine that it was only after working for years as a Manhattan bouncer and nightclub manager that he discovered the stage in the late 1980s, when a friend brought him along to an acting class. He was so unnerved and challenged by a focusing exercise that involved threading a needle that he decided this was something he wanted to continue, he said.
Gandolfini made his Broadway debut in a 1992 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin, and spent more than a decade playing a wide variety of character roles in movies _ giving great performances that were often overshadowed by bigger stars _ before striking gold in January 1999 with Tony Soprano, the mobster who went to therapy, was gentle toward ducks and could be brutal to humans.
In a 1999 interview, Gandolfini told The Record it was Tony's humor that drew him to the series.
"He's a piece of work," he said. "When I first read it, I was laughing very hard. I love the humor of it. I love the strangeness. I love that he's off balance. All these guys (in Mafia movies) are portrayed as if they know exactly what they do. But he's just bumbling along."
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Gandolfini said that he recognized certain comical character traits in the script. "Dominic Chianese, the way he plays the uncle _ I have relatives with the big glasses like that," Gandolfini said.
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The show's future rested largely on the broad shoulders of the 6-foot-1 Gandolfini, who virtually disappeared into Tony Soprano, a role that also won him three Emmy Awards.
And yet, an Entertainment Weekly cover story from January 2000 painted Gandolfini as an insecure actor, unfamiliar with the television world, who was still surprised that Chase hadn't picked someone "with more marquee value" to play Tony.
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That EW piece also quoted Gandolfini saying that, considering some of his other roles _ for example, a pornographer in "8MM," and a neighbor who forces himself on Robin Wright Penn in "She's So Lovely" _ he was especially surprised that female "Sopranos" fans had taken such a shine to him.
"Usually, I'm raping women in movies. Not, y'know, having them talk nicely about me," Gandolfini said.
In fact, during the HBO show's run, Gandolfini had a contingent of mostly middle-aged female fans who formed the James Gandolfini Fan Club and called themselves The Fandolfinis.
For all his media aversion, Gandolfini was known for the warmth that he showed fans. He attended the 20th reunion of Park Ridge High School, and occasionally dropped by Paramus Catholic High School, where his father worked and whose 2005 funeral Mass was celebrated in the school's 800-seat auditorium.One of Gandolfini's sisters, Leta, was a student at Paramus Catholic, Vail said. Another sister, Johanna Antonacci of Montvale, is the manager of the Family Division of Superior Court in Hackensack.
In the six years since "The Sopranos" ended, Gandolfini appeared in a number of movies, including "The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3," "Down the Shore" and Chase's "Not Fade Away." He had recently done a TV movie, "Nicky Deuce," which reunited him with "Sopranos" pals Curatola, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa.
He was prepared to portray a Hackensack restaurant owner, Bobby Egan, in an HBO film. Egan, who owns Cubby's barbecue restaurant on River Street, was an unlikely back-channel conduit between the United States and North Korea for several years beginning in the early 1990s. Egan said the script for the movie is almost complete, and that filming was set to begin in a few months "We are all stunned," he said. "Jim was a great guy and a terrific human being."
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Curatola said he had last seen his friend in March, when many members of "The Sopranos" cast gathered for a personal appearance at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
"He looked great. He and his wife had a new baby (christened in October). He was in good spirits. He was always in good spirits," Curatola said. "We all hung out after the appearance, having brunch together. Jimmy lights up a room, literally."
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