Gandolfini's down-to-earth authenticity and decency came across in person, according to New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
"I know that's not supposed to matter when you're talking about the legacy of an actor who died too young," he said, "but when you've been up close to a guy like that and you can sense the decency in him ... it makes an impression."
Seitz interviewed Gandolfini for New Jersey's Star-Ledger newspaper just as "The Sopranos" was going on the air -- but not before the actor called him on his home phone and said he didn't think he was worthy of adulation.
"I get on the phone and he said, 'Matt, I've been thinking about this and I just don't think I want to do this interview,'" Seitz recalled. "I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'I just don't think I'm that interesting and I don't know why people would be interested in me.'"
Once the interview began, Seitz said, "He didn't want to talk about anything." So Seitz turned the conversation to acting, and Gandolfini opened up with thoughts about actors he said inspired him, including, perhaps, a surprise.
"He went on and on about Mickey Rourke," Seitz said. "He didn't want to be like Mickey Rourke. He actually wanted to be Mickey Rourke. ... He talked about Mickey Rourke the way a 9-year-old boy talks about Superman."
After "The Sopranos" ended its original run in 2007, Gandolfini looked to branch out, playing, for example, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2012's retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty."
But the mob roles beckoned. He played alongside Brad Pitt in last year's "Killing Them Softly," telling ABC News' Cynthia McFadden he had to be talked into playing another tough guy.
"I didn't want to do another mob guy for a long time," he said. "I've done it for 10 years. I had no more tricks. I couldn't pull anything out of the hat for this kind of thing."
In a statement, HBO said: "We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. He was 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."
Now, he is gone -- leaving behind a wife and two children, including an 8-month-old girl.
But, like all iconic roles, Tony Soprano lives on -- and, through him, the man who brought him to life.