Funerals are for the living. James Gandolfini’s was beautiful and wrenching and right. Given what an earthy guy he was, it seems appropriate that it was open to the public and that people started crowding the streets outside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Harlem early in the morning to claim a seat and pay their respects.
I can’t help thinking, though, that if he could have seen all the people in suits and dresses, the immense church with its vaulted ceiling and 1,800 pews, and the news vans and cameras and fans lining up at dawn, he might have thought, This is silly. I'm just an actor. This is a man, after all, who would have attended Sopranos premieres in a yellow cab every year if publicists hadn’t talked him out of it, and once called a reporter at home two days before he was supposed to be profiled by a big daily newspaper to try to cancel the interview on the grounds that he wasn’t that interesting.
The James Gandolfini portrayed by eulogists this morning matched that perception of the actor as a man grateful for his talent and his opportunities, yet deeply uncomfortable with the attention he got, as if he believed his contributions were too small in the greater scheme to bear mention. They weren’t small — the outpouring of grief over his premature death of a heart attack at age 51 is proof. But the fact that his mind worked that way is one of the reasons people responded to his acting, and to Gandolfini the man.
A who’s-who of actors, filmmakers, and media personalities were packed into the front section of the church. There were Sopranos producers and co-stars: David Chase, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi, Annabella Sciorra, Aida Turturro, Vincent Pastore, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Curatola. There were performers and media personalities who knew or worked with Gandolfini: Alec Baldwin, Julianna Margulies, Brian Williams, Chris Noth, Dick Cavett, Marcia Gay Harden.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Tony Soprano’s daughter Meadow on the show, was an especially poignant sight, massively pregnant, and like so many other guests, red-eyed from crying. I overheard a guest saying of Gandolfini’s 13-year-old son, Michael, “He’s a really strong kid, but he looks so lost.”
The actor’s coffin was wheeled in as the Rev. James A. Kowalski intoned, “I am the resurrection, I am the life, says the Lord.” The pallbearers tried to seem as calm and resolute as they could, as pallbearers always do, but you could see their inconsolable sadness. I will never forget the look on the face of the former Sopranos writer and producer Todd Kessler, the pallbearer near the end of Gandolfini’s casket. A knot of anguish.
The eulogists drove home that there was a real kindness, empathy, and humility to Gandolfini. These qualities came through even when he was playing larger-than-life characters or succumbing to the darkness and turning into the wild man of early-aughts tabloid scandals — a side alluded to by Gandolfini’s longtime friend Thomas Richardson and Sopranos creator David Chase.
Gandolfini’s wife Deborah, the mother of his newborn daughter Liliana, remembered her husband as “an honest and loving man. Ironically,” she said, referring to the immense gathering, “he was extremely private.” She said that he was “always secretly helping someone,” a trait confirmed in numerous obituaries and fleshed out in testimonials at the funeral.
Gandolfini’s friend Richardson described him as “the most giving and generous person that everyone here has ever known.” He talked about how Gandolfini’s hugs were always a little bit tighter and went on a little bit longer than everyone else’s. Then he asked everyone in the chapel to stand up and put their arms around the people next to them and hug them as tight as they could, “for it is in hugging that we are hugged.”
There were anecdotes about Gandolfini randomly spending hours with fans he’d met on the street, sharing sushi with teamsters on film sets, and supporting people and organizations for years without anyone in the media even knowing he was doing it.
The Rev. Kowalski remembered first meeting Gandolfini at a fund-raiser for the Tannenbaum Center for Religious Understanding. He talked about how the actor used to keep a notepad and pen with him as he drove; if Gandolfini heard the name of a charitable organization on the radio that he wanted to get involved with, he’d immediately pull over and write it down. “He’d say, ‘I wanna do something to support what they’re trying to do,'” Kowalski recalled.
Kowalski spoke movingly about Gandolfini’s unique skill as an actor, his ability to tap universal fears and longings in such a direct way that it humanized an often monstrous character, Tony Soprano. He said that although he did not like the violence of The Sopranos, he watched the show anyway because he felt Gandolfini’s performance gave him insight into where violence comes from.
“You can’t pay someone enough to do a job like that,” he said, of both Gandolfini’s reaching into darkness as Tony Soprano and of the actor’s personal generosity.
Gandolfini's old friend Susan Aston, credited as his “acting coach” on The Sopranos, spoke of the actor as someone who was fully aware of his flaws and worked as hard as he could to understand himself, control his demons, and be a better person. “In a small home office that he referred to as 'the cave,' where he and I worked late nights on the next day's scenes, this other thing he strove for was to be able to accept himself on the occasions when he fell short of his intentions,” she said.
Chase’s eulogy was presented in the form of a letter to his friend. "I tried to write a traditional eulogy, but it came out like bad TV," he joked. He said he’d thought about writing a few organizing thoughts on a piece of paper and then winging it, as Gandolfini used to do at awards shows, but decided against it, because “a lot of your speeches didn't make sense. But it didn't matter that it didn't make sense, because the feeling was real. The feeling was real. The feeling was real. I can't say that enough."
Chase alluded to Gandolfini’s deep wells of emotion and how he’d sometimes tap them so deeply that the result was terrifying. He remembered a time late in the show’s run when Gandolfini and co-star Steven Van Zandt were supposed to shoot a scene in which Tony got something out of a fridge and then shut the door angrily. He slammed the door too hard, and it popped open again. He slammed it again harder, and it popped open again. This continued, in mounting intensity, until the refrigerator was destroyed, the door hanging on with gaffer’s tape. “And I remember you saying, ‘Ah, this role, this role, the places it takes me to, the things I have to do, it's so dark.’ And I remember telling you, ‘Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? Did it say anywhere in the script, Tony destroys a refrigerator? It says, Tony angrily shuts the refrigerator door. That's what it says. You destroyed the fridge.'"
Chase said that one of the most vivid images of his work with Gandolfini appeared early in the show’s run, while they were shooting a scene on a hot summer day. Gandolfini was sitting in an aluminum beach chair in black socks and shoes with slacks rolled up to his knees and a wet handkerchief on his head.
"And I remember looking over there and going, ‘Well, that's really not a cool look,’” Chase recalled. “But I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place. I said, ‘Wow, I haven't seen that done since my father used to do it, and my Italian uncles used to do it, and my Italian grandfather used to do it.’ And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey. They were stonemasons, and your father worked with concrete. I don't know what it is with Italians and cement! And I was so proud of our heritage — it made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that. When I said before that you were my brother, this has a lot to do with that: Italian-American, Italian worker, builder, that Jersey thing — whatever that means — the same social class. I really feel that, though I'm older than you, and always felt that we are brothers. And it was really based on that day.”
He talked of bonding with the actor through “food, alcohol, talking, rage, and a desire to bring the whole structure crashing down.”
“When Jim focused his incredible gaze on you,” Gandolfini’s friend Richardson said, “you felt so important to him.”
We all felt that sense of importance, that feeling of being understood. Even if you never met the actor and knew him only by watching him as Tony Soprano, there was something about Gandolfini that felt knowable and reachable — a directness, a willingness to be vulnerable, to let himself be helpless or pathetic, to allow us to see through him, the better to see ourselves. Those qualities can’t be taught, only harnessed. Gandolfini was born with them, and he worked like hell to transform them into tools that he could use to connect with us.
Connect he did.
After the funeral, I stopped off at a pizzeria for a slice. As I was sitting alone at a table, a man came over to me and asked if he could look at my program. He said, “Don’t worry, I won’t get anything on it.”
This was Robert Sattinger, a 52-year-old New Yorker who’d tried to get into the funeral but “arrived just a little bit too late.” He told me he didn’t see The Sopranos in its original run but caught up with it in reruns years later while recovering from “a medical situation,” and ended up watching the entire run of the series twice.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said, of his attempt to attend the funeral of an actor he’d never met.
But Gandolfini’s performance had moved him so much that when the actor died, he felt the need to go pay his respects.
As he watched Tony, Sattinger said, he knew that even at his most horrible, the character “had a human side to him, and he had weaknesses which he tried to get hold of. You could tell what was in his heart.”