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James Gandolfini Honored By Rutgers University After Death

06/21/2013 03:23 pm ET
AP

While James Gandolfini was a student at Rutgers University, something happened that he once said could be the reason he became an actor.

Gandolfini, who died from a heart attack Wednesday, was best known for playing mobster Tony Soprano on HBO's "The Sopranos." The Westwood, N.J.-native received a communications degree from Rutgers in 1983.

In a 2004 interview with GQ magazine in 2004, Gandolfini said, "I went to college, and then this girl I knew died. Let's not make a big deal out of that." But the interviewer pressed the actor to share more.

"The girl I knew died in a car accident, and I -- that changed me a lot," Gandolfini explained. "Before that, I don't know what I would have done."

That girl was Lynn Jacobson, who he'd been dating for two years. Her death made Gandolfini, then 19, angry, and he told GQ he was just realizing how much the tragedy affected him. Gandolfini acknowledged that without that experience, he might not have gone into acting.

"Yeah, I think I might not have done what I've done," Gandolfini said. "I don't know what I'd have done. I think it definitely pushed me in this direction. I don't know why. Just as a way to get out some of those feelings. I don't know."

Gandolfini remained close and committed to Rutgers, which honored him as a distinguished alumnus in 2004.

The Rutgers board of governors honored him at a meeting Thursday with a moment of silence, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reports.

"To us, he's best known as a loyal son of Rutgers and a graduate of the class of 1983 who has been continuously and deeply involved with this institution throughout his all-too-short life,” Rutgers President Robert Barchi said at the meeting. "He came to Rutgers, as did his two older sisters. He went on to a spectacular career, but never forgot his roots here — never turned down a phone call or a request to be a supporter of Rutgers."

Gandolfini was an avid fan of the university's sports teams, and he usually sat in the middle of the fan section, rather than up front. Gandolfini once starred in a Rutgers football commercial too, alongside college buddies Mark Ohlstein, Vito Bellino and Tom Richardson.

The Rutgers athletic department paid tribute to the late actor with tweets this week.

Mark Di Ionno, a Star-Ledger columnist, wrote about his friendship with the actor in college. Di Ionno described the time Gandolfini "got drunk and broke a parking gate," and a dart gun fight in which Di Ionno kicked in a metal door that hit Gandolfini, leaving a scar on the future actor's head.

"When he came to, I took him to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick to get his forehead stitched up and paid the bill," Di Ionno wrote. "It was $25, and worth it just to see the scar on his head during all those close-ups on HBO."

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