'Sopranos' star James Gandolfini, 51, died of an apparent heart attack on vacation in Italy(Photo: Ilya S. Savenok Getty Images)
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Actor James Gandolfini was remembered Thursday as a
private but generous man who, despite struggles, created one of the most
indelibly iconic characters in TV history.
The Sopranos star's
funeral, at the massive Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, was
attended by 1,800 friends, family and fans, who streamed in on a steamy
day 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 the
series, including Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi, Tony Sirico, Aida
Turturro, Dominic Chianese and a pregnant Jamie-Lynn Sigler; New Jersey
Gov. Chris Christie, who had lowered the state's flags to half-staff in
his memory; NBC newsman Brian Williams; and fellow actors Alec Baldwin,
Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth and Marcia Gay Harden.
reading by his sister, Johanna Antonacci, Gandolfini was remembered by
his widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, as a "kind and loving man" who was
"always secretly helping someone." Family friend Thomas Richardson said
the actor alternately "struggled and succeeded," and would "focus his
incredible gaze" on those he loved, which would often turn into a hug
"that seemed too tight and felt too long."
Longtime friend Susan
Aston, who acted alongside him early in their careers, fondly recalled
"my teddy bear friend," saying "he used his brilliant mind to ask the
questions that would prepare his heart for each scene." When she last
spoke with him this spring, he told her had turned down a movie role for
this summer, saying " 'It was more important than it's ever been to
spend time with my family and friends on the Jersey Shore and in
California.' 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 16
years older than the actor, "I always felt we were brothers. We had
different tastes, but there were things we both love: family, work,
people in all their imperfection, food, alcohol, talking, rage and a
desire to bring the whole structure crashing down."
how Gandolfini told him once he simply "wanted to be a man," but "the
paradox with you as a man was that with you personally, I was always
seeing a young boy. That's why I think you were a great actor, because
of that boy that was inside." And in mobster Tony Soprano, fans "saw and
felt that little boy and they sensed his love and his hurt."
Sometimes, Chase said, "you tried too hard" to please; "you'd do too
much 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 he
didn't embrace the show's graphic violence, though he admired
Gandolfini's "ability at times to make that darkness accessible to us so
that we may come to terms with it."
But he also said Tony
Soprano's vulnerability was a key to his humanity. If you took Tony's
scenes with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, out of the show, Gandolfini once
told him, "you wouldn't care about this man as much, or care about
anything that happened to him."
And Chase remembered a vision of
Gandolfini while shooting in New Jersey on a hot summer day that
reminded him of their shared blue-collar roots as Jersey-raised Italian
Americans: "You were sitting in an aluminum beach chair with your
slacks rolled up to your knees, black socks and black shoes - that's not
a good look - and I thought, I haven't seen that since my father, my
uncle and my grandfather used to do it. I was so proud of our heritage
to see you do that."