By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Actor James Gandolfini was remembered Thursday as aprivate but generous man who, despite struggles, created one of the mostindelibly iconic characters in TV history.
The Sopranos star'sfuneral, at the massive Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, wasattended by 1,800 friends, family and fans, who streamed in on a steamyday to hear eulogies and prayers.
He died June 19 of a heart attack in Rome at age 51.
Among those in attendance were top HBO executives and co-stars from theseries, including Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi, Tony Sirico, AidaTurturro, Dominic Chianese and a pregnant Jamie-Lynn Sigler; New JerseyGov. Chris Christie, who had lowered the state's flags to half-staff inhis memory; NBC newsman Brian Williams; and fellow actors Alec Baldwin,Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth and Marcia Gay Harden.
After areading by his sister, Johanna Antonacci, Gandolfini was remembered byhis widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, as a "kind and loving man" who was"always secretly helping someone." Family friend Thomas Richardson saidthe actor alternately "struggled and succeeded," and would "focus hisincredible gaze" on those he loved, which would often turn into a hug"that seemed too tight and felt too long."
Longtime friend SusanAston, who acted alongside him early in their careers, fondly recalled"my teddy bear friend," saying "he used his brilliant mind to ask thequestions that would prepare his heart for each scene." When she lastspoke with him this spring, he told her had turned down a movie role forthis summer, saying " 'It was more important than it's ever been tospend time with my family and friends on the Jersey Shore and inCalifornia.' He said, 'I don't want to lose this time with (children)Michael and Lily.' "
Sopranos creator David Chase,addressing Gandolfini as if reading a letter, said that though he was 16years older than the actor, "I always felt we were brothers. We haddifferent tastes, but there were things we both love: family, work,people in all their imperfection, food, alcohol, talking, rage and adesire to bring the whole structure crashing down."
He recalledhow Gandolfini told him once he simply "wanted to be a man," but "theparadox with you as a man was that with you personally, I was alwaysseeing a young boy. That's why I think you were a great actor, becauseof that boy that was inside." And in mobster Tony Soprano, fans "saw andfelt that little boy and they sensed his love and his hurt."Sometimes, Chase said, "you tried too hard" to please; "you'd do toomuch and then you'd snap. And that's of course what everyone read about,was the snapping."
The church's Very Rev. James Kowalski said hedidn't embrace the show's graphic violence, though he admiredGandolfini's "ability at times to make that darkness accessible to us sothat we may come to terms with it."
But he also said TonySoprano's vulnerability was a key to his humanity. If you took Tony'sscenes with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, out of the show, Gandolfini oncetold him, "you wouldn't care about this man as much, or care aboutanything that happened to him."
And Chase remembered a vision ofGandolfini while shooting in New Jersey on a hot summer day thatreminded him of their shared blue-collar roots as Jersey-raised ItalianAmericans: "You were sitting in an aluminum beach chair with yourslacks rolled up to your knees, black socks and black shoes - that's nota good look - and I thought, I haven't seen that since my father, myuncle and my grandfather used to do it. I was so proud of our heritageto see you do that."