An 'intolerable' death

James Gandolfini (centre), who won three Emmys playing TV’s Tony Soprano, a clinically depressed and violent Mafia boss, has died at 51. Dick Cavett wrote this appreciation of the man who was the Godfather for his times in The New York Times.

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 anaemic 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 to be Carmela 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 Carmela 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…

Full tribute in The New York Times:

Obituary in The Guardian:

Obituary in The Telegraph, London:

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