James Gandolfini at the Stella Adler benefit on June 10. One of the last photos of him. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

James Gandolfini at the Stella Adler benefit on June 10 in one of the last photos taken of him in public. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

James Gandolfini found his calling and his passion when he took up acting, and though he worked largely as a journeyman character actor until his big breakthrough on “The Sopranos,” he cared deeply about the craft of acting and his fellow actors.

He was born in 1961 and grew up in Westwood, NJ, across the Hudson River from the bright lights of New York City in a blue-collar family.

is mother, Santa, was a high school lunchroom worker who was born in the United States but grew up in Naples, Italy. His father was born in Borgotaro, Italy and worked as a bricklayer and cement mason before becoming the head custodian of Paramus Catholic High School.

He graduated from Rutgers University but was drawn to New York’s thriving nightlife scene and worked as a bouncer and manager in several nightclubs.

He refocused his life on acting after a friend took him to a Meisner technique acting class. He never forgot his roots.

“He was all about giving back what he got,” says an acting associate. He never wanted to forget where he came from or the help he got along the way.”

One of his last public appearances was on June 10. He appeared at the Stella by Starlight Gala, a benefit that raises funds for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Actress and teacher Stella Adler founded the studio in 1949. It counts among its alumni Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. More than 500 actors train there annually.

Gandolfini was there to honor the work of close friend and our honoree, Elaine Stritch 88, a towering figure on the New York State, in television and movies. Other honorees that evening included Stephen Sondheim, George Takei and Charles S. Cohen.

He made his own Broadway debut in the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Alec Baldwin as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Lange as Blanche Du Bois. Timothy Carhart played Harold “Mitch” Mitchell and Gandolfini was his understudy. The role was originally played by Karl Malden.

Robert Funaro and Michael Imperioli, who worked with Gandolfini on The Sopranos.

Robert Funaro and Michael Imperioli, who worked with Gandolfini on The Sopranos.

His theater credits expanded from there. He also appeared in On the Waterfront, One Day Wonder with the Actor’s Studio, and Tarantulas Dancing at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, according to his official bio.

The road to The Sopranos was paved by his stellar performance in the 1993 film “True Romance,” directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino.

The film starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette with a stellar supporting cast featuring Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt and Christopher Walken.

Gandolfini had a relatively minor part as mob henchman called Virgil. But he delivered a riveting performance in a scene where he viciously beats Arquette’s character to get information from her.

It gave him enough credibility to land the role of Tony Soprano for the HBO mob series. He touched all the actors he worked with, including a young Robert Funaro, who played a mob associate for two seasons until his character commits suicide.

“When Bobby first introduced me to him, he was a looming presence,” said David Salidor, who repped the actor during his last season on the show.

“But I came to find out what a true, gentle giant he was,” he recalls. “The thing that struck me most about him was his true care about the work and his performance. I was a fan before I met him and nothing has diminished that fact. He was a true giant.”