A public goodbye to ‘incredibly private’ James Gandolfini

Cast of ‘Sopranos’, from lead roles to cameos, turn out for funeral in New York


It was an inevitably public goodbye to a man whose wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini noted in a brief and broken-voiced remembrance, had remained, “ironically incredibly private” for all the fame and red carpets .

The vast Gothic structure of the cathedral of St John the Divine in Morningside was one of the few buildings that could cope with the congregation of family and fellow actors and fans who gathered to pay their last respects to James John Gandolfini (51) yesterday.

Virtually the entire cast of The Sopranos, from leading players to the beloved cameos, were reunited to pay respects to their don in the morning heat outside and in the cool interior of the cathedral.

Chris Christie, the governor of Gandolfini’s Jersey state attended along with actor friends Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi and Julianna Margulies. The man at the top of the line of public mourners said he showed up at 3.30am. Many others had begun to gather at dawn.

Some carried Sopranos memorabilia of the extraordinary television show which transformed Gandolfini from a chameleon character actor in film roles to the unforgettably vivid and gargantuan lead as Tony Soprano.

“I hadn’t seen him for two years and didn’t think I would cry, but yesterday I cried a lot,” smiled Lynn Taylor, who worked with Gandolfini as a research assistant for 10 years.

She recalled that when they first met in a diner, he told her he had just done a play with Sean Penn’s parents called Providence.

“The characters were all Irish and Jim told me that he flew to Ireland just to study the people there.

“He didn’t get paid for that, this was a low-budget play. He was a working actor then but certainly not famous. That was the extent he would go to.

“The other thing he told was that he was doing this comedy for HBO. He called it a comedy and HBO was still fledgling then, and my thought was: ‘Gee Jim, too bad you can’t get anything better than that’. That turned out to be The Sopranos.”

For the many hundreds of people who lined up on Amsterdam Avenue, yesterday’s funeral service represented a strange blurring of reality and television land.

HBO filmed yesterday’s funeral and will gift family members with a private commemorative film.

Open letter
In a moving open letter addressed directly to Gandolfini and read from the pulpit, show creator David Chase recalled fragments of the years they spent creating Tony Soprano.

He laughed as he described a broiling day of filming in the New Jersey Pine Woods and seeing Gandolfini baking on a deckchair; trousers rolled to his knees, black socks showing, a damp cloth on his head.

“That is not a cool look and right then I was filled with love. I hadn’t see that since my Italian father and grandfather used to do it. They were stonemasons and I knew your dad worked with concrete – what is it with Italians and cement? – but I was so proud of our Italian heritage to see you do that.”

The laughter rose among the congregation. There were laughs too when his long-time dialogue coach and collaborator Susan Aston took people back to a play she did with Gandolfini in the Lower East Side in the 1980s: it was a basement theatre, they were both inexperienced and she was terrified.

As the music announcing the opening scene began to blare, Gandolfini gave his lopsided grin and said to her: “Hey Aston, what’s the worst that can happen? We suck.” It wasn’t true, of course.

They dimmed the lights in Broadway on Wednesday evening as a salute.

In the days since Gandolfini’s sudden death, from cardiac arrest while on a family holiday in Italy, there has been an outpouring of praise from fellow actors and countless fans around the world.

He was heavy and lumbering and balding, flouting every must- have for wannabe actors, yet leaving at least one immortal lead role to posterity.

He crossed the Hudson river from New Jersey and, like most aspiring actors, held down a bagful of oddball jobs in Manhattan. He studied theatre craft intensely and doubted he had “it” before finally getting a break, opposite Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Existential woes
After that, his arc was subtle and slow-burning until he won the role of a moody, hilarious and brutal mob boss who confesses his existential woes to a psychiatrist.

“Why do we love Tony Soprano when he is such a prick?” asked Chase in his eulogy. “My theory is that they see a little boy. You were very boyish. I saw you as a boy – amazed and confused. That is what made you such an amazing actor.”

Chase recalled meeting his lead man one night near the Hudson shore when he was having a crisis of confidence about his acting. “You know what I want to be?’” Gandolfini said. “I want to be a man. That’s all.”