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Seitz on James Gandolfini, 1961-2013: A Great Actor, A Better Man

James Gandolfini was real. He was special. You could feel it.

Friends felt it. Colleagues felt it. People who talked to him for five minutes and never saw him again felt it. People who never met him in person and knew him only through his performance on The Sopranos felt it.

It was real. It was deep. It was true.

James Gandolfini had an authentic connection with viewers. Everyone who watched him perform, in a starring role or a bit part, came away feeling understood. You watched him act and you thought, “Yes. He gets it. He understands.”

He wasn’t one of them. He was one of us.

"I'm an actor,” he once told a reporter. “I do a job and I go home. Why are you interested in me? You don't ask a truck driver about his job."

In the wake of James Gandolfini’s death – of a heart attack, at the appallingly young age of 51 – I keep coming back to that realness, and the source of it, his goodness. I got to know him a bit as a reporter, and I can testify that what you’ve heard is true. He was a good man.

Gandolfini’s goodness was, I believe, at the heart of the powerful connection he forged with viewers. You could sense the goodness in him, no matter how tortured and tormented his characters were. It was there in those sad eyes and that radiant smile.

I covered The Sopranos for the Star-Ledger, the paper Tony Soprano picks up at the end of his driveway. I kept in contact with members of the production staff after I handed the beat to my colleague Alan Sepinwall in 2004. I wasn’t buddies with Gandolfini or anything. Not too many people in the press were, I don’t think, except maybe people Gandolfini knew before he got famous.

I did one of the only one-on-one interviews with him, way back in late 1998, before The Sopranos premiered on HBO.

Two days before our scheduled interview, he called my house. My wife answered the phone.

“Yes?” she said.

Then her jaw dropped. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “It’s James Gandolfini!”

She loved Gandolfini. She’d had a crush on him ever since she saw him play Geena Davis’ boyfriend in Angie.

Then she held up a silencing finger because Gandolfini was already talking, nervously. Stammering, practically.

“Okay,” she said to him. “All right. Well, OK. Well. Well ... Well, I don’t know about that. Are you sure?”

Long pause.

“It might not be so bad,” she told him. “You never know. You know what? I think this is a conversation that you really should have with Matt. Hold on a second, he’s right here.”

When I picked up the receiver, Gandolfini said, “Hey, listen, I’ve been thinking about it, and I really think it’s better if I don’t do this interview.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I just don’t see how I’d have anything interesting to say,” he said. “Why would anybody care? I’m just not that interesting. Who cares what some actor has to say about anything? I’ll just come off sounding like an idiot.”

He was silent for an awkward moment.

Then he said, “I don’t want to get you in trouble with your bosses, though. So I thought I should talk to you about it, and ask you if maybe there was some way we could not do this thing. And just … not do it. Without causing a problem for you. Or for me.”

Somehow I managed to talk him into doing the interview anyhow.

My editor Mark DiIonno asked if he could come along when I visited the set, because he’d gone to Rutgers with Gandolfini and claimed to be personally responsible for the distinctive dent in the actor’s forehead. Apparently a bunch of guys were tear-assing around the dorm shooting dart guns at one another, and Mark surprised Gandolfini by kicking a door open before he could burst through it. The door struck Gandolfini in the forehead and left that famous crease.

“I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” Mark said.

When we arrived on the set, Gandolfini saw Mark. His face lit up with one of the warmest smiles I’ve ever seen on anybody. He hugged Mark and clapped him on the back so hard you’d think he was trying to dislodge food lodged in Mark’s gullet.

This is how James Gandolfini often greeted people: as if he was overjoyed to see them, and wanted to revel in their presence just in case he never saw them again.

We spent half a day together on the set of one of the Sopranos episodes. He was great. I wish I’d saved the cassette tape. He talked about coming up in Hollywood and in the New York theater scene. He talked about acting and bartending. I vividly remember him talking about how much he loved Mickey Rourke.

He said, “In the eighties, Mickey Rourke was the shit. If you were a young guy who loved movies and wanted to be an actor and was seeing a lot of movies in the eighties, there was nobody better than Mickey Rourke. DeNiro, Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, they were all great, don’t get me wrong. But Mickey Rourke was the man. I wanted to be Mickey Rourke.”

I said, “You wanted to be like Mickey Rourke?’

He laughed and said, “No! I mean actually wanted to be Mickey Rourke. I wanted to be him. Like, steal his soul, like in Angel Heart, and actually be Mickey Rourke!”

In the summer of 1999, the Television Critics Association gave Gandolfini an award for his work on the show. Nobody warned him that the cocktail reception after the awards show was a press event and that he’d be swarmed by reporters with notepads and tape recorders. He thought it was an off-the-books type of deal, just one professional group appreciating another. I was already at the bar when he sidled up next to me, ordered a beer and said, “One of these days, you’ll have to explain to me how this thing works,” and waved his hand, indicating the media piling onto the hotel balcony where the bar was located. When the tape recorders and notepads came out, his eyes filled with panic.

When the cameras came out and the flashbulbs started going off, he stayed a couple more minutes, then fled. A friend later told me that the moment reminded him of the scene at the end of King Kong, right before the ape breaks his chains and goes berserk.

In December 1999, on the eve of season two, he sent Christmas cards to critics who’d written nice things about the show. As Alan noted in his appreciation, some of these cards had his home address on them.

There was no blowout premiere party for season one of The Sopranos because nobody had any idea how big it would become. Season two was a different story. HBO rented out Radio City Music Hall. The cast and crew and executives arrived in limousines, as is customary. James Gandolfini arrived in a yellow cab.

At the after-party, I asked him why.

“My family’s here,” he said. “My friends are here. Guys I grew up with are here. Some of them came by train or by the subway to get here, or they drove three hours in a van or whatever. What are they gonna think if they see me getting out of a limo?”

“They’ll think you’re the star of a hit TV show,” I said. “Which you are.”

“They’re gonna think I’ve gone Hollywood.”

“You know this is the last year you’ll be able to do that, right?” Michael Imperioli told Gandolfini. And he was correct. He tried to take a cab to the season one premiere and was talked out of it. Gandolfini showed up at the season three premiere party in a limo. On the red carpet, he looked as though he’d rather be anywhere else, but he showed up in a limo.

He got better about seeming comfortable talking to the press and in public forums. In time he was comfortable enough to do an hour-long conversation with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio.

But I think it’s fair to say that none of this is proof that he’d “gone Hollywood.” More likely he was just giving a different sort of performance, one as convincing as all of his others.

Every time I spoke to him between 1998 and 2006 – the last time I had any contact with the man – he seemed like basically the same guy I’d met that first time, but with more money. I took my brother Richard, a big Sopranos fan, to the season six DVD release party. When he saw me, he acted as if he’d never been happier to see anyone. He grabbed me in a headlock and gave me noogies like Bill Murray torturing Gilda Radner on the old Saturday Night Live and crowed, “Hoah! What happened to all your hair?”

“What happened to all your hair?” I shot back lamely, pulling free of his grip.

“Look at this fuckin’ guy, with the banter,” he said to the room at large.

“When’s the last time you saw him?” Richard asked me afterward.

“I don’t know. Maybe three years?”

You wouldn’t have known it.

Look at this picture of Gandolfini at Mardi Gras in 2007. Look at the smile on the face of this mountain of a man, this black-hatted gangster pope.

You could tell he really got a kick out of people: experiencing their personalities, their idiosyncrasies; hearing their stories.

I think that’s why, when he’d won some awards and made a ton of money and had enough clout to get his own projects made, the first thing he threw his weight behind was an oral history documentary about recently returned veterans. He was on camera interviewing. He listened more than he talked. He had no political agenda. He just wanted to give the soldiers a platform to talk about what it was like to go through whatever they’d been through.

It wasn’t about him. Even if he was the star of a TV show or a movie, it wasn’t about him.

It was about them.

It was about you.

It was about us.

When my wife died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006, he sent me a condolence note. It read, “I am sorry for your loss. I remember talking to your wife on the phone that one time. She seemed like a nice lady.”

It was signed, “Jim.”

While I sat at my desk writing this piece, my friend Shade Rupe, who created a James Gandolfini fan site, emailed me two sentences. “I created and maintained gandolfini.com. He knew.”

Attached to the email was a photo of Shade with Gandolfini. The actor has a huge smile, almost as huge as Shade’s. They look like a couple of war buddies reunited after twenty years.

Anybody who had even the slightest contact with Gandolfini will testify to what a great guy he was, how full of life he was, how extraordinary he made other people feel. Yes, absolutely, he had problems – with drink, with drugs, with women, probably with lots of other things, for all we know – but so does everybody, to one degree or another. But whether he was feeling well or poorly, or living smartly or stupidly, there was always something about the guy that you wanted to embrace.

You could feel it shining through the screen, that warmth and vulnerability, that broken yet still-hopeful humanness.

That’s what made Tony Soprano, a bully and killer and cheater and disgusting hypocrite, so likable. The decent part of Tony, the part that stood in for the tragically wasted human potential Dr. Melfi kept trying to tease out and embrace, came from Gandolfini. His humanity shone through Tony’s rotten façade. When people said they sensed good in Tony, it was James Gandolfini they sensed.

"It's like showing emotion has become a bad thing,” he told me. “Like there's something wrong with you if you're really in love or really angry and you show it. Like if you feel those powerful emotions and you express them, instead of keeping them inside or expressing yourself politely, then you must be someone who needs therapy, or Prozac. That's the world we're in right now."

He went on, “The character is a good fit. Obviously, I'm not a mobster, and there's other aspects of the guy I'm not familiar with, like how comfortable he is with violence. But in most of the ways that count, I have to say, yeah — the guy is me."

He was Tony Soprano. He was James Gandolfini. He was us.

We lost a friend today.

Photo: Getty Images/2009 Getty Images