Saturday, July 13, 2013

Good Night, Sweet Soprano

July 12, 2013
The sudden death at 51 of James Gandolfini is intolerable.
When he died, it never occurred to me not to go to his funeral. Until my wife pointed it out afterward, it also never occurred to me that I had “crashed” it. Standing in the sunshine in a long line in front of St. John the Divine with “ordinary people” I was spotted and we were ushered down front among family and colleagues.
My first mourner encounter was with the great Dominic Chianese, (Uncle Junior). We embraced. The procedure, repeated over and over, while the church filled, was to come face-to-recognized-face with one “Sopranos” cast member after another, wet with tears, speaking not at all or with great difficulty.
And there they all were. I had, over the years, met most of them — Michael Imperioli, Steve Schirripa, Tony Sirico, Vince Curatola, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Pastore et al, and we exchanged hugs and kisses on the cheek.
(The unruly mind being what it is, the thought occurred to me that I hadn’t been embraced and kissed by so many males since congratulating, backstage, the talented cast of a New Orleans drag show.)
So much crying. A grown man, weeping, is a tough thing to see.
There was a kind of through-the-looking-glass feeling standing there in a small group of Big Pussy, Paulie Walnuts and Johnny Sack, plus, for seasoning, a noticeably reduced Gov. Christie. “Do you know all the Sopranos?” I asked him. “Most of them,” he said. “And arrested some of them,” the greatly gifted Curatola added, for a needed laugh. (It’s no secret that the phrase “done a little time” applies to a cast member or two.)

The splendid Aida Turturro (Janice, Tony’s sister) sensitively observed that what made it all so unbearable was that “Jimmy was just beginning to enjoy his life.” He had turned down a movie this summer to finally spend some much craved time in his vacation home on the water with his family.
As seemingly hundreds of people still poured into the church, I went over to where Edie Falco and Turturro were sitting together, both dabbing tears. We spoke a little about how there’s always something too anemic about the phrases people use in talking of mortality. Like the threadbare euphemism “passed away.” Preferable to dying, apparently, we sarcastically agreed.
Frighteningly, history will record that E. Falco almost didn’t get tobe Carmella Soprano. She tells of how one more tiring audition seemed just too much that day and, besides, the show sounded, from the title, like some odd sort of musical production. But, lucky us, she did go, “and got the part of a lifetime.”
What a wife she was to Tony and what richly complex characters they both were. And how miraculous that Nurse Jackie bears no more resemblance to Carmella Soprano than I do.
And I owe Edie an apology. Chatting, I misattributed to Hemingway a line from the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s most famous and most widely reprinted column, on the death of Captain Waskow.
The dead officer was deeply loved by his men. All tears and grief, each one came up and stood by his corpse, laid out on the ground in the moonlight. One looked down and said, simply, “God damn it to hell, anyway.” Pyle writes, “Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: ‘I sure am sorry, sir.’”
(That kills me.)
It’s strange, isn’t it, how, in the presence of a dead person lying in the street, or one in a coffin at a funeral, you can feel for a moment not so much lucky as a little bit ashamed of being alive.
My last significant meeting with James — I’ll get to the first in a moment — was in his dressing room on Broadway. My wife and I saw him in “God of Carnage.” Our front-row seats were so close to the stage you could lay your hand on it, and the light spill from the stage lighted me. Later in the dressing room, he said, “I kept seeing you. I almost said hello.”
Then he described an attack of terrible anxiety that overtook him as beginning work on the play approached, with deep fears over — of all things — ability to learn and retain his lines. He said he’d actually entered a hospital for a few days of anxiety treatment. (Shades of Tony in Dr. Melfi’s office.)
Meeting him, by the way, was initially a slight disappointment. Because he wasn’t Tony. He didn’t talk like Tony at all. He himself was no more Tony Soprano than Jackie Gleason was Ralph Kramden, or Jean Stapleton Edith Bunker.
He was an actor.
The subtlety, the darting bits of humor, the variety of facial and body movements and gestures, and especially the number of what you might call emotional and intellectual octaves available to this so richly gifted actor — too many wonders to gather and appreciate in a single viewing.
(David Chase, incidentally, probably owes the world the secret of how to produce episodes and, in fact, season after season of, to me, TV’s best series. Whole seasons without a single — and I dare you to find one – dull moment. And cast to perfection. Not a clunker in that vast and varied troupe of splendid players. Chase might also reveal how you can mix humor and killing so expertly that the question has even been raised, was “The Sopranos” a comedy?)
Gandolfini’s great feature was his eyes. For a man of unremarkable physique and features, the eyes were pure magic. They were soft, twinkly, cuddlesome and loving. At other times, frozen, menacing, cruel and murderous, shifting suddenly from one expression to another with startling impact. Those eyes were the outstanding, endlessly versatile feature of this gifted actor’s arsenal of talent. He never made a false move.

Now: how I first met James. Years ago, in the midst of the series, a new friend, Michael Imperioli, Tony’s problem nephew in the show, one day asked if I’d like to visit the set. It was among life’s easiest decisions.
While standing on the sidewalk outside the studio in Queens, here Gandolfini suddenly came, strolling on break with Steven Van Zandt.
Not expecting to meet him so suddenly, I’d prepared no conversational gambit, coming up feebly with nothing more substantial than, “Mr. Gandolfini, where I come from in Nebraska, your last name would be pronounced ‘Gandol-FINNY.’”
He either politely showed, or skillfully feigned, interest in this pallid subject.
“The way my fellow Nebraskan, Johnny Carson, always said ‘Hou-DINNY’ for ‘Houdini,’” I added.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” he said, being a nice man.
Shooting resumed, he went away. And I felt the need to make a stronger impression on this hero of mine.
Inside, during a break, I’d been talking to a man in a martial arts T-shirt about the wonders of aikido and how I’d learned the “stunt” from a sensei in Tokyo of — by an almost mystical technique — making yourself unliftable. By anyone on earth. And how I had befuddled the giant footballer Mark Gastineau with it on TV.
I hadn’t noticed Gandolfini passing by. “Did I hear you say you can’t be lifted if you don’t want to be?” he asked, politely, but brimming with skepticism. I admitted as much.
With about 20 cast and crew members watching, he, facing me, gripped me under the armpits and put me up in the air as if I were a bed pillow.
I invited him to now duplicate the feat. He resumed the grip, and with a mighty effort, grunting and groaning and with some perspiration, emitted a strained “Aarrgh!” and a guttural, “No way!” My feet never left the ground. There was good-natured jeering from the onlookers.
Afterward, some kind soul sent me a snapshot of the failed lifting moment. A puzzling picture of a large, tall man, oddly gripping a much smaller man’s underarm areas for no apparent reason. (The large man is not as large as he later became.)
We did have one other, brief meeting, by pure chance. It was in the locker room at Wollman skating rink in Central Park. I’d gone there with a friend and he asked if I knew his friend Gandolfini. James, preparing to skate, greeted me warmly and said, “Thanks to you, all the guys on the set call me ‘faggy’ now because I couldn’t lift Dick Cavett.”
“Mr. Gandolfini, I almost never think of you as ‘faggy,’” I offered.
“Thanks, Dick, I really needed that,” he grinned. And, to the delight of the onlookers, rewarded me with a great big kiss.
John Donne reminds us that “any man’s death diminishes me.” James Gandolfini’s sure did. He had so very much more to give us.
So long, James.
And God damn it to hell, anyway.

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