James Gandolfini’s funeral
Rita Papazian
Published: July 5, 2013

When 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 family member.

            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.

Rita Papazian is a freelance writer and can be reached at ritajpap@gmail.com .


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