(NEW YORK) -- John Travolta starred with James Gandolfini in big-screen hits like Get Shorty and Lonely Hearts but, in real life, the two New Jersey natives went back much further.
“My father sold tires to his father,” Travolta said Thursday on ABC’s Good Morning America, remembering his friend Gandolfini, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 51.
“I was his inspiration to get into the business,” he said. “He would see pictures of me on the wall from movies and he decided that he wanted to be an actor.”
Gandolfini, most famous for his role as Tony Soprano in the HBO hit The Sopranos, was at a Rome hotel vacationing with his son Wednesday when paramedics brought him to a hospital in cardiac arrest, officials said. Doctors pronounced him dead less than an hour later.
In addition to his 13-year-old son, Michael, the actor is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, and his daughter Liliana, 8 months old.
“My goal is to make sure that his family is okay,” Travolta said. “His little boy, I watched him grow up, and his brand-new little girl. We’ll just make sure they’re taken care of. That’s the whole idea.”
Travolta taking care of Gandolfini’s grieving family would be payback, the actor says, for what Gandolfini did for him and his wife, actress Kelly Preston, when their oldest son, Jett, died unexpectedly of a seizure in 2009 at the age of 16.
“James went out of his way to come to Florida and he would not leave Florida until I was okay, or he felt that I would be fine,” Travolta recalled. “After a week I said, ‘Jim you can really, you can, you know, we’ll be fine. I’ve got a lot of support here.’”
“But the idea that in our profession someone would go out of their way and not want to leave you until he felt you were okay, that’s the kind of soul that James Gandolfini was,” Travolta said.
Joining Travolta in remembering Gandolfini were celebrities from Mia Farrow to Robin Williams and Samuel L. Jackson to his Sopranos co-stars, one of whom, Lorraine Bracco, described herself as, “utterly heartbroken.”
In a statement, Sopranos creator David Chase called Gandolfini, “one of the greatest actors of this or any time.”
Travolta recalled Gandolfini as not just a giant on the stage or on the screen, but as a giant in his personal life among the friends and family who knew and loved him the most.
“He was a people person first and then everything else,” Travolta said. “He was this beautiful man and I love him very much.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio