(CNN) -- "The Sopranos" made him a star, but James Gandolfini's rise to fame began with a small student film from 1989. Playing a pimp named Mike, the tough guy role was the New Jersey native's screen debut.
Gandolfini didn't get paid for the performance in "Eddy," but he left a lasting impression on the director David Matalon.
"He was really intense and always prepared on set," said Matalon, who made the movie for a mere $10,000 as a student at New York University. "He was really focused. And he really loved acting. You can see he was a guy that was very conscious of the work."
"Eddy" was a modern-day film noir, in which the title character falls for a working girl named Marge. When they decide to run away together, Gandolfini's Mike kills Eddy and accidentally shoots Marge as well.
Gandolfini was 27 and working as a doorman at the time, said Matalon. He cast Gandolfini after interviewing about 15 actors for the part. "None of them were very convincing and threatening," Matalon recalled, "and then he just had it.
"He came in, and the girl helping me do the movie, he started doing the monologue, and she was crouching behind me and I said 'as far as I'm concerned, you got the part.' "
Matalon remembered the moment Gandolfini walked onto the set for the first time.
"This giant scary guy shows up in the elevator. He was really in shape, really ripped. There's a scene when he throws the guy off camera and in reality, he threw the guy so far into the air he went up and hit the ground."
It would be four years before Gandolfini appeared in "True Romance," his first major Hollywood film role, and a full decade before "The Sopranos" turned him into a television icon.
But back in 1989, the imposing young actor was just starting out on a career that came to a end last week with his death at 51.
"He was a great guy," said Matalon, who is an accomplished screenwriter, producer and filmmaker. "You could see there's a slight dangerousness in him. It kept it exciting, but he never let it overcome his professionalism."