ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- James Gandolfini's portrayal of conflicted mobster Tony Soprano on HBO's "The Sopranos" made him a superstar, but away from the camera he was anything but a celebrity - he was just a guy from Jersey.
Gandolfini, a native of Westwood and a Rutgers University graduate, died Wednesday at the age of 51 while on holiday in Rome, according to HBO.
"He liked his privacy, he didn't like to be, quote, unquote, on all the time," said Carl Kirschner, former dean of Rutgers College from 1994 to 2007. "He was generous, but not extremely outgoing unless you knew him well."
Gandolfini's friendship had to be earned. The actor graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications in 1983, and when he became a star, he returned to Rutgers to appear in TV spots touting the university and the football team, starting in 2003.
"He was a little bit on the shy side, there's nothing wrong with that," Kirschner said. "When I first met him, I told him I was the dean of Rutgers College. He said, 'Are you going to come and take back my diploma?' He was a good teaser."
"The Sopranos" ran from 1999 to 2007. Gandolfini was the focus of the show. He brought an emotional depth to the gangster genre that had not been seen before -- a wiseguy who juggled family life in New Jersey suburbia and paid regular visits to a psychiatrist.
At the close of the series, he appeared in the short film "Club Soda," which was shown at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park in 2007.
"He was a gentleman," said film festival producer Diane Raver. "He was respectful and he had a twinkle in his eye. He was a wonderful guest, more than anything, he was very gracious."
Jenn Mehn of Asbury Park once ran into Gandolfini at Manitoba's bar on the Lower East Side of New York City.
"He was there hanging out with friends and here I am this kooky person asking for him to pose with a puppet," Mehn said. "He was game. He was friendly and in good spirits."
Gandolfini seemed at ease in area taverns. He was a bouncer at the former Ryan's in New Brunswick. After the 2004 Rutgers homecoming game, he stopped into several area pubs, including the Court Tavern.
"He paid and went down to see all the bands," said bartender Neil Burke at the time. "He even had exact change for (the) doorman."
During Gandolfini's time as a student at Rutgers in New Brunswick he was a close friend of Mario Batali, who would become a celebrity chef.
"I am totally shocked and devastated by the passing of one of my oldest and dearest friends," Batali said in a statement Wednesday night. "I only hope to help his family any way I can in their grief and mourning."
Tributes and remembrances poured in at the news of his passing.
"James Gandolfini was a distinctive, talented actor whose unforgettable performances made him a television icon. Through all of his success, James Gandolfini remained a proud New Jerseyan, a Westwood native and a Rutgers University graduate," said Sen. Robert Menendez. "His photograph has been displayed in my Washington, D.C., office for years as part of our New Jersey Wall of Fame. I am saddened at the news of his untimely death. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and all who were close to him."
Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, a son, Michael, and an 8-month-old daughter.