For James Gandolfini, being a Jersey guy wasn't an act.

Gandolfini became famous playing a northern New Jersey mobster on the landmark HBO TV series "The Sopranos."

But it was the Westwood-born actor's reaction following one of his first big breaks - starring in the 1994 movie "Angie" with Geena Davis - that showed just how deep Gandolfini's New Jersey roots really ran.

"He got a lot of money for the movie, and his idea of how to celebrate was to rent a really big house and invite his friends to come for a couple of months at the Jersey shore," said Dan Bischoff, the author of a new biography of Gandolfini - the first published since the actor's June 2013 death following a heart attack at age 51.

"He wasn't into art, he wasn't into money. He spent the money on his friends and his daily life," the author said

Bischoff, art critic for the Star-Ledger newspaper, was called to write biography shortly after Gandolfini's death.

What emerges is a portrait of the actor as a private, almost shy man, devoted to his craft and his friends and grateful for an undreamed-of level of success that came to him late in life.

The author, who met Gandolfini twice - "they were both very short, I wouldn't call them interviews" Bischoff says of the meetings - came away from the project filled with admiration for his subject and the actor's connection to a close group of friends who knew him before he ever became famous.

Those friends became crucial sources of information for Bischoff as he raced to complete the biography of a celebrity known for a reluctance to talk about himself.

"He was always very chary about the press. He didn't do TV interviews because he didn't want people to know him, he didn't want people to concentrate on his celebrity," Bischoff said. "He was always pushing reporters off. He was uncomfortable. It was partly from being from an Italian immigrant family - you respect your dad, try not to outshine the family."

Gandolfini's family were typical working-class New Jersey parents - his father was a janitor, his mother a high school lunch lady.

Raised in Park Ridge, Gandolfini acted in high school plays and was voted both best looking and biggest flirt in his high school yearbook.

After graduation, Gandolfini attended Rutgers University, where he majored in communications and worked as a bouncer at a campus pub, Bischoff said.

It was also at Rutgers that Gandolfini met people to whom he would remain close for the rest of his life.

"There is a crew of about seven guys from Rutgers who continued to be his best friends," Bischoff said. Several men in this group went on to work at the Star-Ledger, giving Bischoff a good starting place for researching Gandolfini's life. The group included wine critic T.J. Foderaro, who - along with Gandolfini - spent college working in restaurants and learning about wines and food.

While at Rutgers, Gandolfini also met Lynne Jacobson, whom he would date for two years and who would have a profound impact on the actor's life.

Jacobson worked nights at a banquet house while studying advertising. One night, returning home from work, she fell asleep behind the wheel and was killed in the ensuing accident.

Bischoff sees Jacobson's death as a turning point in Gandolfini's life: "It deepened him, it made him say ... 'Why plan for a regular, compromised life in New Jersey.'"

When he won his third Emmy award for "The Sopranos," Gandolfini mentioned Jacobson. In later interviews, Gandolfini would say that Jacobson's death led him to a career in acting.

Gandolfini remained a Rutgers supporter throughout his career, attending athletic events and even making a commercial for the school with a group of his college friends.

For Bischoff, the commercial and the ties to Rutgers "shows a kind of warmth. There was a loyalty to the people of New Jersey, to the way they live and what they have to put up with, in everything he did," the author said.

Gandolfini also brought that commitment to acting. When he decided he wanted to pursue the profession he approached acting teacher Kathryn Gately and invited her to talk things over over dinner.

"He shows up in suit and tie and totally charmed her," Bischoff said. "This idea, that you cut a good figure. you show respect if you want something, that was a part of him."

Even as "The Sopranos" became a hit, Gandolfini didn't take things for granted. Bischoff tells a story of a late-night call the actor placed to show creator David Chase, convinced that Chase was going to have his character - the title character on a massive TV hit - killed off.

"The fact that he believed that was true, showed he really was an artist," Bischoff said. "He had to believe in the show more than he believed in himself. There was this absence of vanity in his kind of acting."

Even as Gandolfini took advantage of his success, he couldn't shake off the lessons of his upbringing.

When a contract dispute resulted in production of "The Sopranos" being shut down for a week, Gandolfini made sure the final agreement included back pay for the crew. He then gave $33,000 each to 16 castmates as a way of thanking them.

Bischoff is even understanding of reports that Gandolfini would sometimes disappear while episodes were being shot, leaving other cast and crew members wondering where he was and delaying production.

"You need to understand the pressure of producing 'The Sopranos.' Tony Soprano was in every episode, he would, at the end of the day, have to go .. (and) spend more hours learning dialog. The pressure must have been immense," the author said.

And while the loyalty of long-time friends and the praise of professional colleagues reinforce the tales of Gandolfini's commitment to remaining a regular guy, it was an episode with another of Hollywood's biggest stars that Bischoff said best sums up Gandolfini's view of his life.

"What struck me about him, is he's standing with Brad Pitt, waiting for a scene to start, and he said ... 'We are really lucky.' Brad Pitt said 'You are not lucky, you worked your (tail) off to get here.' But I think Jim thought of himself as being really lucky," Bischoff said.

Contact Steven V. Cronin:

609-272-7242

'James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano'

By Dan Bischoff

St. Martin's Press