To fans of "The Sopranos," James Gandolfini was a violent yet complex mob boss who embodied the image of a Jersey tough guy.
But to residents in his native Bergen County, the late actor was remembered Thursday as the star of a high school musical and a down-to-earth diner regular.
Mike Meidanis, owner of the Ridge Diner in Park Ridge, remembered Gandolfini as a family man who frequently stopped in with his parents and sisters.
"He didn't act like a celebrity around here," Meidanis said. "He loved his family.”
Gandolfini, born in Westwood, graduated Park Ridge High School in 1979, and was voted senior “class flirt.” Some of his early forays into acting came with roles in the high school productions of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and the musical "Kiss Me Kate."
One former classmate, Grace Biancorosso, shared the stage with the future superstar and called him a “great guy.”
Paul Herdemian, the owner of The Jewelry Workbench in Park Ridge and the maker of prop jewelry for "The Sopranos," first met Gandolfini as a local student working at an ice cream parlor in town.
"Everybody loved him," Herdemian said.
He remembered the adult Gandolfini as a generous man who supported the local Octoberwoman Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
"He always gave back," Herdemian said. "He was always that kind of guy."
Jim Vail, the president of Paramus Catholic High School, knew Gandolfini and his father, James Sr., who was the school's director of facilities for 40 years.
"He was a regular guy who cared for people and was very generous," Vail said of the younger Gandolfini. "He was totally unlike the character in the show."
Gandolfini died Wednesday in Italy where he was set to appear at a film festival in Sicily. An initial cause of death was believed to be cardiac arrest, but officials in Italy were set to conduct an autopsy Thursday on the Sopranos star, CNN reported. Italian law requires an autopsy be performed within 24 hours of a death, the news agency reported on its website.
Claudio Modini, head of the emergency department at Rome’s Policlinic Umberto I hospital where Gandolfini was taken, told the Associated Press the actor arrived at 10:20 p.m. Wednesday and was pronounced dead at 11 p.m. after efforts to revive him in the ambulance and hospital failed.
Gandolfini collapsed in his room at the Hotel Boscolo around 10 p.m. when his 13-year-old son Michael summoned help, NBC News reported, citing hotel director Antonio D'amore. Hotel staffers rushed to the room and found Gandolfini on the bathroom floor. The hospital was reportedly a three-minute drive from the actor’s hotel.
Modini described the apparent cause of death as “probably a natural cause of death, myocardial infarction,” according to CNN. Initial reports suggested there were no signs of drug or alcohol use, but a further investigation was needed.
Gandolfini was set to receive the "Taormina City Prize" at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, where organizers were working to organize a tribute for the star, FOXNews.com reported.
The organizers, Mario Sesti and Tiziana Rocca, said they spoke to Gandolfini only hours before he died and described him as “very happy to receive this prize and be able to travel to Italy," the AP reported.
Condolences continued to pour in Thursday from celebrities, friends and fans. Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini’s TV wife Carmela, said she was devastated to learn of her longtime co-star’s death.
“I am shocked and devastated by Jim's passing,” Falco said in a statement released by Showtime. “He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words. I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague. My heart goes out to his family. As those of us in his pretend one hold on to the memories of our intense and beautiful time together. The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I've ever known.”
Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, remembered hearing from Gandolfini after he played the ex-spy chief in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
"James Gandolfini was a friend and a great actor. He wrote me after portraying me last year, which was a great thrill and honor. I told him I was glad an Italian played me -- swear words and all. We laughed together at the fact that tough guys can have a heart of gold. He did, and we will miss him," Panetta said in a statement to CNN.
Patch Staff Writer Alana Quartuccio contributed to this article.