James Gandolfini’s funeral
I read that the late actor James Gandolfini’s funeral was going to be
public, I became obsessed with my desire to attend the service at the
Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine a week ago Thursday.
I began to think through the logistics in getting to the church on
Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street in Manhattan, not only on
time for the 10 a.m. service but also getting their early enough to be
part of the public that would be allowed in.
I did it along with an estimated 1,000 other members of the public.
“Why?” my friends ask.
I wanted to be part of the funeral service. I wanted to be witness
to the spiritual good-bye to what I and many others believe was one of, if
not the number one greatest actor of our time. I truly believe he was.
Also, in my own personal way, I wanted my presence to say thank you to
Gandolfini for his acting and for making we, Italian-Americans, proud
through his acting and through his life and especially, as David
Chase, creator and writer of HBO’s “The Sopranos” would
address, his humanness.
While “The Sopranos” was not without critics of its violence
and stereotypical portrayal of Italians as mobsters, it also gained a
faithful following of fans during its seven-seasons run for story lines
dealing with relationships among family members and friends. Of course,
food often took a bit of the spotlight. As an Italian-American, I,
especially, was attracted to the stories in which Gandolfini’s
character, Tony, struggled with his relationship with his wife Carmela and
his two children.
So, there at 7:45 a.m. I stood near the front of the line for the
general public on the west side of the church on Amsterdam Avenue while
those on the guest list formed a line on the east side until 9:30 a.m.
when we were allowed to enter through the front doors of the church.
Steve Schirripa, one of the many members of the “Soprano” cast
who attended the funeral, told
Daily News journalist Denis Hamill that leading up to the funeral he was
worried that people looking to be on the guest list were treating the
occasion as if it were a premiere. I could understand such thinking,
especially with the doors open to the public. However, I was quite
surprised how respectful the public behaved on line and in the church.
Everyone showed such reverence as if we were truly at a funeral for a
While waiting on line people struck up conversations with one
another to learn where they had traveled from, why they were there and why
they loved Gandolfini so much. The informality of conversation and the
hordes of TV cameras, still photographers and journalists were a welcomed
distraction to loll away the time until we filed into the church.
The casket and family members had entered through a side door to
avoid the media outside and the long walk to the altar. Gandolfini’s
13-year-old son Michael was one of the pallbearers. One of his two
sisters, Johanna Antonacci, did a reading and his wife Deborah was one of
four who offered their remembrances. These included the actor’s close
friend Thomas Richardson, his dialogue coach Susan Aston and Chase.
Gandofini’s wife Deborah told the gathering that her husband was
“an honest, kind and loving man and ironically extremely private.” One
of the things she loved about him was watching him with his children,
which also included his 9-month old daughter Liliana. His friend Tom
described the actor as a “channel of peace and a channel of goodness”
who as immense as his talent was, he was even greater as a person.
In talking about Gandofini, dialogue coach Aston said the
opposite of strength is not weakness, but vulnerability and that “one
can only be as strong as one allows himself to be vulnerable.”
Gandolfini, she said, “taught us to be okay in our humanness. She
described how in working with him as he walked himself through his lines
the night before the next day’s shooting, he would ask a lot of
questions to prepare for a scene. Then, she said, when the scene began, he
trusted that an invisible net would rise and up and take him to a place he
could not have imagined. He struggled with the ability to trust himself
when he fell short.
Aston recalled a time when he first started acting and they
were in a play together. They stood waiting for the play to begin and he
yelled out to her: “’Aston, what’s the worst that can happened? We
suck.’..In order to create, one has to be willing to miss the mark,”
she said, “and to be willing to be seen as human.”
That willingness to be seen as human seemed to be echoed in
Chase’s talk, which literally brought people to tears.
I especially loved when he shared a memory when they were shooting
the pilot for “The Sopranos” during
“that really hot and humid summer New Jersey heat.”
Chase, who presented his talk in a letter to “Jimmy,”
said, “…you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair, with your
slacks rolled up to your knees, in black socks and black shoes, and a wet
handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going,
‘well that’s really not a cool look.’ 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 stone masons, 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.”
As an Italian-American, I understood what Chase was saying; I
understood what Chase was feeling and I understood why I loved Gandolfini
so much as Tony Soprano and so much as the fine actor he was. I remember
seeing my father, who rose to become the comptroller of London Records, in
the backyard in our suburban Long Island split-level house barbecuing.
There he was wearing his sleeveless thin ribbed cotton undershirt and
Bermuda shorts with his black socks and shoes.
In his letter to “Jimmy,” Chase described how that he saw
in him as a young boy “when humankind, and life on the planet are really
opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their
beauty and horrible glory.” Chase
saw a sad, confused, amazed and loving boy and he saw it “all in
your eyes.” And that is why, he said, Gandolfini was a great actor:
because of that boy who was inside. He was a child reacting. He could
“take in the immensity of humankind and the universe, and shine it out
to the rest of us like a huge bright light. And I believe that only a pure
soul, like a child, can do that really well. And that was you.”
Now, that light is no longer, but I thank David Chase for
articulating what I felt but could not really express about James
Gandolfini, the actor and the man.
Papazian is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2013 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.