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This week, friends, family, and hundreds of fans gathered to pay their respects to James Gandolfini at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. Four mourners — Gandolfini’s wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini; his assistant, Thomas Richardson; his acting coach, Susan Aston; and his old boss, Sopranos creator David Chase — delivered eulogies at the service.
A transcript of Chase’s speech, which he structured as a letter to his late friend, is reprinted below.
Your family asked me to speak at this service. I am so honored and touched. I’m also really scared, and I say that because you, of all people, understand this. I would like to run away and then call you four days from now from the beauty parlor.
I want to do a good job because I love you, and because you always did a good job.
I think the deal is, I’m supposed to speak about the actor, the artist, the work part of your life. Others will have spoken beautifully about the other beautiful and magnificent parts of you — father, brother, friend. That’s what I was told. I’m supposed to also speak for your cast mates, who you loved; for your crew that you loved so much; the people at HBO; and Journey. I hope I can speak for all of them and pay credit to them and to you.
Experts told me to start with a joke, recite a funny anecdote. Ha ha ha. But as you yourself so often said, “I’m not feelin’ it.” I’m too sad and full of despair. I’m running too partly because I would like to have had your advice, because I remember how you did speeches. I saw you do a lot of them at awards shows and stuff, and invariably, I think you would scratch two or three thoughts on a sheet of paper and put it in your pocket, and then not really refer to it. And consequently, a lot of your speeches didn’t make sense.
I think that could happen here. Except in your case, it didn’t matter if it didn’t make sense because the feeling was real. The feeling was real. The feeling was real. I can’t say that enough.
I tried to write a traditional eulogy, but it came out like bad TV. So I’m writing you this letter and I’m hoping it’s better. But it is being done to and for an audience, so we’ll give the funny opening a try. I hope it is funny. It is to me; I know it is to you.
One day toward the end of the show, fourth season — four or five — we were on the set shooting a scene with you and Steven Van Zandt. I think the setup was that Tony had received news of the death of someone and it was inconvenient for him. And it said, “Tony opens the [refrigerator] door angrily, and Tony starts to speak.” And the cameras rolled, and you opened the refrigerator door, and you slammed it really hard. You slammed it hard enough that it came open again. And so then you slammed it again, and it came open again. You kept slamming it, and slamming it, and slamming it, and slamming it. You went apesh-t on that refrigerator.
And the funny part for me was, I remember Steven Van Zandt — because the cameras were going, and we had to play this whole scene with the refrigerator door open. And I remember Steven Van Zandt staying there, standing, and trying to figure out, “Well, what should I do first as Silvio? Because he just ruined my refrigerator.” And also as Steven the actor, because we were going to play a scene with the refrigerator door open; people don’t do that. And I remember him going, sort of trying to tinker with the door, fix the door.
And so we finally had to call “cut,” and we had to fix the refrigerator door — and it never really worked, because the gaffer tape showed, we couldn’t get a new refrigerator, and it was a problem all day long. I remember you saying, “This role, this role. The places it takes me to, the things I have to do. It’s so dark.” And I remember saying to 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 refrigerator.”
Another memory that comes to mind is, very early on — might have been the pilot — we were shooting in that really hot summer, humid New Jersey heat. And I looked over and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair, with your slacks rolled up to your knees, and black socks, black shoes. And a damp, wet handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going, “Well, that’s really not a cool look.”
I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place. Because 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. They were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey, and they were stonemasons — your father, I know, worked with concrete. I don’t know what it is with Italians and cement.
I was so proud of our heritage. [His voice breaks.] It made me so proud of our heritage, seeing you do that. I said before that you were my brother. This has a lot to do with that. Italian-American, Italian worker, builder, the Jersey thing. The same social class. I really feel, even though I’m a lot older than you, I’ve always felt that we are brothers, hardly from another mother. It was really based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything that we were doing, that we were about to embark on.
I also feel you’re my brother in that we had different tastes, but the things that we both loved — which was family, work, the people in all their imperfection, food, alcohol, talking, rage, and a desire to bring the whole structure crashing down. We amused each other.
The image of my uncles and father reminded me about something that happened between us one time. Because these guys were such men — that was the point of it. Your father, and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith, about yourself, and a few other things. Very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River, and you told me, you said, “You know what I want to be? I want to be a man. That’s all. I want to be a man.”
Now, this is so odd, because you were such a man. You’re a man in ways many men, including myself, wish they could be a man. The paradox about you as a man is that I always felt personally that with you, I was seeing a young boy. A boy about Michael [Gandolfini]‘s age right now. Because you were very boyish. And about that age when humankind and life on the planet are opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their beautiful and horrible glory. And I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy, amazed and confused and loving and amazed by all that.
And that was all in your eyes. And that was why, I think, you were a great actor — is because of that boy that was inside. It was a child reacting. Of course you were intelligent, but it was a child reaction, and your reactions were often childish. And by that I mean they were pre-school, they were pre-manners, they were pre-intellect. They were just simple emotions, straight and pure. And I think your talent is that you can take in the immensity of humankind and the universe and shine it back out to the rest of us like a huge, bright light. And I believe that only a pure soul, like a child, could do that really well. And that was you.
Now, to talk about a third guy between us — there was you and me and this third guy. People always say, “Tony Soprano. Why do we love him so much when he was such a prick?” And my theory was they saw the little boy. They felt and they loved the little boy, and they sensed his love and hurt. And you brought all of that to him.
You were a good boy. Your work with the Wounded Warriors is just one example. And I’m going to say something because I know you’d want me to say it — that no one should forget Tony Sirico’s efforts in this. He was there with you all the way, and in fact, you said to me just recently, “You know, it’s more Tony than me.” And I know you, and I know you would want me to turn the spotlight on him, or you couldn’t be satisfied.
So Tony Soprano never changed, people say. He got darker. I don’t know how they could misunderstand that. He tried, and he tried, and he tried. And you tried, and you tried, more than most of us, and harder than most of us, and sometimes you tried too hard. That refrigerator is one example. Sometimes your efforts were a cost to you and to others. But you tried. And I’m thinking about the fact, like, how nice you were to strangers on the street, fans, photographers. You would be patient and loving and personable. And then finally, you would just do too much, and then you’d snap. And that’s of course what we read about, the snapping.
I was asked to talk about the work, and so I’ll talk about the show we used to do and how we used to do it. I guess everybody knows we always ended an episode with a song. And that was kind of like, letting the great geniuses do the heavy lifting — Bruce [Springsteen] and Nick [Lowe] and Keith [Richards] and Howling Wolf, and a bunch of them.
So if this was an episode, we would end with a song. And the song, as far as I’m concerned, would be Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One of Us.” And the setup for this — we never did this, you never even heard of this. But the setup was, Tony was somehow lost in the Meadowlands. He didn’t have his car and his wallet, and his car keys. And I forget how he got there — there was some kind of a story. But he had nothing in his pocket but some change. He didn’t have his guys with him. He didn’t have his gun.
And so mob boss Tony Soprano is like one of the working stiffs, getting in line to get on the bus. And the way we were going to film it, he was going to get on the bus. And the lyric that would have gone over that would have been — we don’t have Joan Osborne here to sing it — “If God had a face/What would it look like?/And would you want to see/If seeing meant that you would have to believe?/And yeah, yeah/God is great/Yeah, yeah/God is good/Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
So Tony would get on the bus, and he would sit there, and the bus would pull out of this big billowy haze of smoke. And then the key lyric would come on, and it was: “What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/Trying to make his way home?” And that would be playing over your face, Jimmy.
But then — and this is where it gets kind of strange — now, we would have to update it, because of the events of the last week. And I would let the song play further, and the lyrics would be, “Just trying to make his way home/Like a holy rollin’ stone/Back up to heaven all alone/Nobody callin’ on the phone/Except the pope, maybe in Rome.”