Actor James Gandolfini, who grew up in the Garden State and graduated from Rutgers University, is being mourned as a "true New Jersey guy" and a state treasure after his death Wednesday at age 51.
Hospital officials in Rome, Italy, where Gandolfini was vacationing and scheduled to attend a film festival, confirmed Thursday that the TV icon died of a heart attack.( Thu Jun 20 08:31:50 PDT 2013 $__output )
A close family friend and spokesman for Gandolfini's family, Michael Kobold, said the actor's family found him in his hotel room with a "medical emergency." Emergency crews were called and administered first aid in the hotel before Gandolfini was taken to the hospital, where he died.
Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini's TV wife, Carmela, in the hit series, said in a statement Thursday that she was "shocked and devastated" by his death, and felt lucky to have spent a decade as his close colleague.
"He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words," Falco said. "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."
Gov. Chris Christie called the death of Gandolfini "an awful shock."
"James Gandolfini was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy," said Christie. "I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically, Tony Soprano. I have gotten to know Jimmy and many of the other actors in the 'Sopranos' cast and I can say that each of them are an individual New Jersey treasure."
Fans flocked to the Satin Doll nightclub in Lodi, used as a set for Tony Soprano's Bada Bing club and office on the HBO hit show.
"I thought, 'You know what? I should have a visit here to the Bing and have one for Tony,'" said Ed Bredin.
"The phone's ringing off the hook here," said manager Lance Lyons. "People are coming down."
New Jersey natives also took to social media to eulogize the actor, frequently referring to him as a local "legend" and "icon" and praising him as an ambassador of their state.
"Gandolfini always made NJ proud. Such a shame," tweeted Joe Caporoso.
"Park Ridge, NJ lost its prodigal son today: James Gandolfini. A true New Jerseyan. So upsetting, so young. You will be missed. Unbelievable," wrote Guy Barretta.
Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, attended Park Ridge High School and received a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Rutgers University. He was the son of a building maintenance chief at a Catholic school and a high school lunch lady.
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).
While Tony Soprano was a larger-than-life figure, Gandolfini was exceptionally modest and obsessive — he described himself as "a 260-pound Woody Allen."
His colleagues had more glowing descriptions to offer upon learning of his death.
"He was a genius," said "Sopranos" creator David Chase. "Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."
HBO called the actor a "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."
Gandolfini and his wife, Deborah, who were married in 2008, have an 8-month-old daughter, Liliana. The actor and his former wife, Marcy, have a teenage son, Michael.
After his success, he made his home in New York City, most recently in Tribeca. Outside his apartment building Wednesday night, a single bouquet was left in his honor.
"Everyone loved him," said neighbor Ellen Lytle, who along with her husband, Michael, became friends with Gandolfini and his wife Deborah when the actor moved to the neighborhood. "He's going to be very missed. I'm just devastated by this."
At the original Patsy's Italian restaurant, owner Sal Scognamillo, who has hosted most of the cast of the "Sopranos," has fond memories of the actor, particularly one night when he came in for dinner.
"He stopped at every table to sign an autograph, to take a picture, to say 'thank you,'" recalled Scognamillo. "He even stopped midbite into a meatball to talk to a fan."
"This was a special person who was taken from us too soon," he said.
-- Pei-Sze Cheng contributed to this report.