The Star-Ledger columnist Mark Di Ionno struck a friendship with the late James Gandolfini during freshman year at Rutgers. Since then, he has witnessed his college chum catapulted to fame for playing the iconic role of Mafia hitman Tony Soprano. Since news broke of his sudden death last night in Italy, tributes to the acclaimed, Emmy-award winning actor have come pouring in from people who worked with him and from legions of fans on social media.
In today’s edition of The Star-Ledger, Di Ionno devoted his column to recount their early days at Rutgers and the subsequent reunions over a span of 30 years.
Speaking from The Star-Ledger‘s Newark bureau, Di Ionno shared with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider the memory of how he drove Gandolfini to his first summer stock audition.
“He was a kid right out of Park Ridge High School and, like all the kids there, he had his dreams, knew he wanted to be an actor,” recalled Di Ionno.
While Gandolfini’s passion for acting was evident, Di Ionno says it wasn’t obvious back then that he was a star in the making.
“He had a great charisma and drew people to him. He could be a very good friend and a very warm guy at times,” he described. “But, no, there was not that aura that you would come back and say, ‘I knew then he would be a star.’”
HBO’s The Sopranos not only brought fame to Gandolfini, it also brought a curious fame to the Garden State. Through the show, out-of-state fans became familiar with Jersey landmarks like the Turnpike, the Pine Barrens and Tony Soprano’s newspaper of choice, The Star-Ledger. Like the character he played, Di Ionno says Gandolfini was one of those guys who was very comfortable and happy with his “Jerseyness.”
“Jersey guys are guys that don’t pretend they’re New York guys,” he explained. “The governor’s one of those guys, Springsteen after a little while became one of those guys, Jon Bon Jovi was one of those guys. They’re proud to be from New Jersey. They don’t pretend to be otherwise.”
Not everyone in New Jersey has been happy with the international spotlight the HBO series has brought to the state. Anti-defamation activists have protested the negative portrayal of Italian Americans and many residents have decried the characterization of their state.
“His character as emblematic of Jersey is something that’s a little bit more problematic,” DiIonno said. “Is Jersey filled with gangsters, gangster wannabees, thugs, people who are always corrupt and working on the edges? Well yeah, there’s some of us like that here, but mostly not, of course.”
Di Ionno is quick to point out that Gandolfini, the man, was entirely different from his character.
“James Gandolfini, with his humility, his workaday actor work ethic, the way he treated the people he came in contact with, as far as I know …. is a little more emblematic of Jerseyans and how Jerseyans are,” he said. “We’re not pretentious people.”