New Jersey mourns Gandolfini's death

James Gandolfini died Wednesday while in Italy for a film festival. His death is being mourned by residents of New Jersey who were fans of ‘The Sopranos.’

ELIZABETH - James Gandolfini was mourned in the northern New Jersey towns where his TV character Tony Soprano lived, loved and whacked people.

The star of the HBO series about a New Jersey mob boss with anxiety issues and a midlife crisis died Wednesday night in Italy of a heart attack.

Dr. Claudio Modini, head of the emergency room at the Policlinic Umberto I hospital in Rome, said Gandolfini suffered a cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at 11 p.m. Wednesday after resuscitation efforts in the ambulance and hospital failed.

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In neighborhoods where "The Sopranos" was shot, Gandolfini was being recalled Thursday with mixed emotions: a global star who made their communities famous, but sometimes at the expense of their reputations.

At the house that was Gandolfini's fictional home in the award-winning show, someone left a bag of uncooked ziti at the foot of the driveway. In the Bloomfield ice cream parlor where its famous cut-to-black last scene was shot, a "Reserved" sign marked the table where Tony had his last on-screen meal.

Vito Mazza, who was busily preparing for an Italian-American festival in Elizabeth this weekend, said the actor had hometown credibility.

"He was as Jersey as it gets, through and through," he said.

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge in New Jersey, the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.

After earning a degree in communications from Rutgers University, Gandolfini moved to New York, where he worked as a bartender, bouncer and nightclub manager. When he was 25, he joined a friend of a friend in an acting class.

Gandolfini's first big break was a Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" where he played Steve, one of Stanley Kowalski's poker buddies. His film debut was in Sidney Lumet's "A Stranger Among Us" (1992).

Gandolfini and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year, HBO said. Gandolfini had his son Michael, who was with the actor in Italy at the time of his death, with his former wife, Marcy.

Gandolfini's "Sopranos" character has become an indelible part of the state's global image, as much a part of New Jersey culture as tolled highways, smokestacks and crooked politicians.

Pete Canu, a limousine fleet owner who was sipping coffee in an Elizabeth butcher shop Thursday morning, said Tony Soprano was very realistic.

"He had frailties and failings; he was human, aside from all that gangster crap," Canu said. "A lot of people were offended by it. They say it makes it look like all Italian-Americans are mobsters, but people know we're not. We're just hardworking people who get up every day and do our jobs and provide for our families. It was just a TV show."

But the butcher shop's owner, John Sacco, said "The Sopranos" spread negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans far and wide.

He said when he went to a dentist in Florida and when he revealed he was from New Jersey, someone in the office said, "Oh, the place with all the mobsters!"

"It didn't show us in a real great light," he said.

Marvin Diaz was a big fan of the show, which filmed some episodes just blocks from his house.

"It put us on the map," he said. "You have this huge hit show and everybody is talking about it, and they see where we're from. It brought a little bit of Hollywood to Elizabeth."

The house where Tony Soprano lived in the show is in North Caldwell, and fans were stopping by to show their respects to Gandolfini. Michael Primamore, who lives nearby and whose family runs an auto repair business, left a bag of dried ziti next to the candles that sprouted in the driveway.

He said the show accurately reflected the experiences of his and other Italian-American families who settled in Newark before moving to the suburbs.

"The show was full of so many northern New Jersey Italian expressions, if you weren't raised in that world, you wouldn't get some parts of it," he said. "The show reached me on a personal level in so many ways."

Several North Caldwell residents recalled seeing and meeting cast members.

"They were great people, very personable," said Chris Masi, who said he met Gandolfini. "They would come up and give you a hug. They put us on the map. It meant a lot."

Debbie Davidson said the cast and crew co-existed well with residents.

"They were very friendly and cordial and didn't obstruct the goings on in the town," she said. "It was nice. It made us famous for a while."

Fans also gathered at Holsten's, the Belleville ice cream parlor where the show's last scene was shot.

Fred O'Neil, 51, of Montclair, was at the parlor celebrating a victory by his youth baseball team when he found out about the actor's death.

"I'm sad he died," said Fred O'Neil of Montclair, who, like Gandolfini, is 51. "I can't believe it. It makes me think of my own mortality."

Primamore said his reaction to Gandolfini's death was a lot like what Tony Soprano's would have been: "It's a tragedy. What are you gonna do?"

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