Guest Column: Loss of James Gandolfini stirs memories

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I now have had a few days to process the loss of James Gandolfini, to get past the shock of it. I have not stopped thinking about him; his work, what his work and success meant to me personally and to all of us. I can’t stop thinking about the man, James Gandolfini. 

I can clearly remember the first time I saw him in Miami, the night before shooting my very first scene. Executive Producer Ilene Landress invited me to tag along and meet “Jim” at a club in South Beach. Upon arriving, there was a line out the door, complete with a bouncer keeping people at bay, including us. Ilene called Jim’s cell and he came out to get us. After a brief hello, his massive hand shaking mine, he led us in, I followed behind as he moved through a packed club, the crowd parting—all eyes, including mine, focused on this larger-than-life presence. 

I won’t pretend that I had a great, personal friendship with Jimmy outside of SOPRANOWORLD. I did not. We worked together. And when I say “together,” that is the key. Jimmy worked “with” you. Whether you were an actor, an AD, a grip, or the prop guy you instantly felt that we were all working together for the same purpose, to make great TV. Nothing was more thrilling than sitting at a table read, thumbing through a new script (first checking to see if you got whacked) and then seeing you had a “one-on-one” scene with Jimmy. He was an actor who filled every moment with truth and honesty. When you delivered a line to him and he hit it back to you with that truth, you couldn’t help but be better in your next moment. If you track your favorite running character on The Sopranos and you have a scene in mind that stands out as that actor’s best work, I will bet it was a scene with Jim. (Then throw Edie Falco’s brilliance into the mix and it is some of the best work you will see anywhere, stage, TV or feature film). Jim and I were trained the same way, both students of the Meisner technique. I just learned that fact this week. I should have known. “To live truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” moment to moment. He embodied that principle; you see it in every role, in every moment of his work. 

When the camera wasn’t rolling, Jim was Jim. I have heard this many times since his death. “ Jim was a regular guy.” It is true, but he was also more. Somehow, this huge, invincible-looking exterior contained a humble and vulnerable soul. That is what he brought to Tony Soprano and it is what he brought to the inevitable bear hug that followed his trademark “There he is!” upon seeing you. 

One of my favorite scenes with him is when Little Carmine convinces Tony to go “hat in hand on bended knee” to make peace with Phil after their “altercation.” That day, Jimmy had invited a guest to the location. I arrived first and saw someone I thought was a 15-year-old kid in a wheelchair, missing both legs and half an arm. After speaking to the “kid,” he told me he lost both his legs and arm in Iraq. This was the first I became aware of Jim’s devotion and tireless commitment to the wounded men and women who were sacrificing in far-off wars. He had been to Iraq a few times to visit the troops, all without fanfare or any press coverage. 

Jimmy, you were one of a kind.