Actor James Gandolfini, best known for his role as larger-than-life New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack in Rome.
He was 51.
Gandolfini, a Bergen County native who attended Rutgers, was in Italy for the Taormina Film Festival, at which he was expected to make an appearance during the closing gala on Saturday.
"He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time," Sopranos creator David Chase said in a statement. "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.'"
Gandolfini won three Emmys and an army of fans for his portrayal of the equally murderous and humorous mob scion Tony Soprano, a product of the streets of Newark who lived with his dysfunctional family in a stately home in North Caldwell.
The show, critically acclaimed but often criticized for its glorification of the mafia lifestyle, made the Park Ridge native a household name and formed the leading edge of a wave of New Jersey-themed television shows when it first aired in 1999.
"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family," HBO Vice President of program publicity Mara Mikialian said. "He was special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect."
Steven Van Zandt, who played caporegime Silvio Dante on the show, posted on Facebook that "the world has lost one of the greatest actors of all time."
At Satin Dolls in Lodi, where scenes featuring the fictional Bada Bing strip club run by Van Zandt's character were filmed, manager Lance Lyons said the series made an impact still felt today.
"It did good for the club," he said. "People know the club as the Bada Bing. We have tourists coming in here all the time."
At Holsten's ice cream parlor in Bloomfield, a "reserved" sign was placed on the table where the Soprano family dined on onion rings before the series famously cut to black, a small tribute to Gandolfini.
"He was a very nice man and a real professional when the cameras were rolling," said Chris Carley, the owner of Holstens.
Gov. Chris Christie called Gandolfini "a true Jersey guy."
"It’s an awful shock. James Gandolfini was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy," Christie said. "I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically."
James Cozzarelli, the owner of the Irvine-Cozzarelli funeral home in Belleville where many "Sopranos" funeral scenes were filmed, remembered Gandolfini as "a wonderful, generous, welcoming gentleman" who always took the time to speak with fans who waited outside during filming.
“He truly listened to the fans, put his arm around around their shoulders, took pictures with them, and just reassured people," Cozzarelli said. "He would also remind people that he was an actor and nothing like the character he portrayed on the TV show."
North Caldwell Police Chief Mark Deuer, who met Gandolfini while working security on the Sopranos set, said the actor would often join police officers for lunch.
"He was down to earth, one of the guys, always pleasant," Deuer said. "He was a good guy."
Deuer still keeps a photo of them together on his desk.
Gandolfini's first noteworthy role was in a 1992 Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.
He first reached success as a hitman in 1993's "True Romance." Gandolfini appeared in more than 40 movies, including "Get Shorty," a 1997 remake of "12 Angry Men" and the Oscar-nominated "Zero Dark Thirty." His most recent movie, indie film "Down the Shore," features Gandolfini as a down-on-his-luck boardwalk amusement owner dealing with the death of his sister and troubles from his past.
Though he was best known for his roles as gruff characters, Gandolfini also produced two documentaries examining the post-war experience of veterans coming home from Iraq.
He was twice married, and had one son with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski. He married his second wife, former model Deborah Lin, in 2008. They had a daughter together last year.
Gandolfini was born at the Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood on September 18, 1961 and grew up in nearby Park Ridge, where he played high school basketball and was reportedly a lifelong fan of The Ridge Diner.
He was also a supporter of the Octoberwoman Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, based in Park Ridge. He appeared as a celebrity guest at the charity's functions numerous times to help raise money.
Gandolfini's sisters still live in Bergen County. Johanna Antonacci is the manager of the county Superior Court's Family Division and resides in Montvale. Leta Gandolfini lives in Westwood. His father, who died in 2005, was the longtime director of facilities at Paramus Catholic High School.
Paul Milo, Teresa Akersten, Mike D'Onofrio and Devin McGinley contributed to this report.