Among his close friends and family, James Gandolfini was known to be a lot of things – shy, funny, difficult, sensitive – but after his daughter Liliana was born last October, the Jersey guy who ferociously embodied TV Mob boss Tony Soprano for eight seasons was something else: mushy. Sharing a recent photo of his new baby girl alongside her brother, Gandolfini’s 14-year-old son Michael, “he said, ‘Look at this. This is love,’ ” recalls his childhood friend Duff Lambros. Since welcoming Liliana with his wife of four years, former model Deborah Lin, “he was over the moon about being a dad again,” says Lambros. “He had a beautiful boy and a perfect little girl. He was so happy, and when he cracked that smile, it wasn’t just teeth—he smiled with his eyes. It felt like the sun was shining.”
Just a few months later, on June 19, the sun went down far too soon for Gandolfini, who died at age 51 of a heart attack while on vacation in Italy with Michael. The news devastated his loyal circle of family and friends, who remembered the star of HBO’s The Sopranos as a complex, intimidating, big-hearted giant of a man who wryly acknowledged the inevitable comparisons to his wise guy alter ego. “I am playing an Italian lunatic from New Jersey, and that’s basically what I am,” he told Vogue in 2001. But after battling his demons through the years – including drug use, clashes with HBO and a difficult 2002 divorce from his first wife, Michael’s mother, Marcy Wudarski – the three-time Emmy winner finally had “a calmness about him,” says the actor’s former fiancée Lora Somoza, who remained in touch after their engagement ended in 2005. Devoted to his children, Gandolfini had taken Michael – who called for emergency help after his dad was suddenly stricken – to Italy for some father-son bonding. “When I heard that he was with Michael, I thought, ‘At least he was with the great love of his life when he passed,’ ” says Somoza. “I remember him telling me once, ‘The love I have for Michael is primal.’ It’s a tragedy that his daughter won’t know what a great father and a great man he was.”
With funeral arrangements set for June 27 at New York City’s historic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, “everyone is in shock,” says one close friend. “Deborah is in shock. It’s really hard.” Those closest to Gandolfini also noted with sad irony that the outpouring of public grief would have discomforted the fame-averse star. Prone to brutal bouts of self-criticism – he once described himself as “a 260-lb. Woody Allen” – Gandolfini “played the role of Tony so well because he had some of the facets of Tony Soprano in his personality,” says his college friend, Star-Ledger columnist Mark Di Ionno. “He was gregarious and sympathetic, and at times he could get angry. You could see a sadness in his face.” He also had a perfectionist streak that could create friction with friends and colleagues—even as he earned their respect. “Jim worked very hard in everything,” Sopranos creator David Chase tells PEOPLE. “He was always searching, trying to work harder – and not just as an actor. I mean in life.”
Proud of his blue-collar roots, the son of working-class parents grew up listening to Italian records at the family’s modest home in Park Ridge, N.J. The “happy, cute little boy,” as his childhood pal Pam Donlan describes him, would grow into a charismatic young man voted Class Flirt at Park Ridge High School in 1979. “Girls loved him. Guys loved him,” recalls Lambros. The future star displayed a “quiet confidence,” says Lambros, that he would later display onscreen: “He had a cool dignity.”
During his college years at Rutgers University, “he was away from home for the first time. He could be a little reckless, like a lot of kids that age,” recalls Di Ionno. After graduation he moved to Manhattan, where he worked various odd jobs before scoring a gig in 1993’s True Romance. When he auditioned for The Sopranos several years later, “my impression was that he was keenly intelligent and nobody’s fool,” says Chase. The show took off immediately after its 1999 debut, and Gandolfini established a reputation as a star who was by turns demanding and kind. “If we screwed up lines or were late, you’d know he wasn’t pleased,” says a Sopranos cast member. “But for the real stuff – if someone was upset or had stuff in their personal life going on – he was the most generous one on-set.” He quietly gave to veterans’ causes for years and was touched by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy last October. “We went to Breezy Point, N.Y., and he gave a resident a blank check,” recalls his close friend. “He said, ‘Make sure these kids get to go to school.’ ”
The actor was no stranger to tough times himself, particularly during his divorce from Wudarski, who gave a scathing interview about him to the New York Post after their split. “He felt deeply hurt,” says a source who was close with him during the ordeal. In the midst of the turmoil, “he’d disappear from time to time from production,” adds an industry source. “When he got angry, you’d think of Tony – his voice was loud, stern.” But the exes, who shared custody of Michael, reached friendlier turf in recent years, and Gandolfini credited his son with helping him mellow. “You want to try and show as much of the good stuff that’s out there to him,” he told GQ in 2004.
There was even more good stuff lately, as Gandolfini settled into married life with Lin. “He was very happy,” says Chase, who saw him in April. “Deborah seemed to be a very loving influence. He was crazy about Liliana. It was all really working out for him.” Recalling their last meeting several months ago, Lambros cherishes the memory of what would be their last embrace. “To get one of Jimmy’s hugs made you feel like you were tied together,” she says. “He was a uniter. He crammed a lot of living and love and giving into 51 years.”