At a funeral service Thursday morning at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, James Gandolfini was memorialized by friends and family as a man whose considerable talents were exceeded by his kindness and generosity.
The actor, who earned three Emmys for his role as New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” died last week of a heart attack while vacationing in Rome.
The service, held under the soaring arches of New York City’s largest house of worship, was attended by several hundred mourners, including “Sopranos” co-stars Edie Falco, Joe Pantoliano, Aida Turturro and Dominic Chianese, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, NBC’s Brian Williams and actor Alec Baldwin.
Speaking briefly, Deborah Lin Gandolfini thanked her late husband “for the beautiful memories of the life we shared together.”
Thomas Richardson, the actor’s assistant and friend, described Gandolfini as “ the most generous and giving person that anyone has ever known,” and fondly recalled their adventures together. “It seems like he crammed 100 years of memories into his too-short life,” said Richardson, who ended his remarks by requesting that mourners hug the person next to them.
Susan Aston, Gandolfini’s longtime dialogue coach, recounted a moment during their days in the theater. As she nervously prepared to go on stage, Gandolfini, her “big teddy bear of a friend,” looked to her. “‘What’s the worst that can happen? We suck,’” he yelled.
“These were liberating words of wisdom,” she said.
Aston also suggested that the vast St. John the Divine was not quite “big enough to hold his huge heart and spirit.” Instead “we should be on a mountaintop, under the expanse of the sky and the heavens,” she said.
A final, poetic remembrance came from David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” who delivered his eulogy in the form of a letter to his late friend. “I tried to write a traditional eulogy,” he said, “and it came out like bad TV.”
Chase recalled how, on a scorching summer day early in the production of “The Sopranos,” he looked over to see Gandolfini, parked on the sidewalk in a aluminum beach chair, wearing black shoes and socks and a damp handkerchief on his head. The image immediately reminded Chase of his Italian family.
“It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that,” Chase said, pausing to gather himself. “I was filled with so much love for everything that we were doing and that we were about to embark on.”
Describing Gandolfini’s reputation as “a man in a way that many men, including myself, wish they could be a man,” Chase attributed his skills as a performer, paradoxically, to his boyishness.
“I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy, amazed and confused and loving,” he said. “That was why I think you were a great actor, is because of that boy that was inside. It was a child reacting.”
Imagining the funeral as an episode of “The Sopranos,” Chase concluded his letter to Gandolfini with a closing scene set to the tune of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” In it, Tony Soprano is stranded in the Meadowlands without his car keys or wallet and is forced to take public transportation home.
“So Tony would get on the bus and he would sit there and the bus would pull out and this big billow of diesel smoke,” he said. “And then the key lyric would come on: ‘What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way back home.’ And that was playing over your face.”
“But then, and this is where it gets kind of strange, now I’ve had to update because of the events of the last week,” Chase continued. “I would let the song play further and the lyrics would be; ‘just trying to make his way home, like a holy rolling stone, back up to heaven all alone, nobody calling on the phone, except for the pope maybe in Rome.’ Love, David.”
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