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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Memories of James Gandolfini

Matt Zoller Seitz‘s reflection is lovely, loving, the work of an observant writer and a deadline newspaperman at staccato finest: “James Gandolfini had an authentic connection with viewers. Everyone who watched him perform, in a starring role or a bit part, came away feeling understood. You watched him act and you thought, “Yes. He gets it. He understands.”

He wasn’t one of them. He was one of us.

“I’m an actor,” he once told a reporter. “I do a job and I go home. Why are you interested in me? You don’t ask a truck driver about his job.”

In the wake of James Gandolfini’s death–of a heart attack, at the appallingly young age of 51–I keep coming back to that realness, and the source of it, his goodness. I got to know him a bit as a reporter, and I can testify that what you’ve heard is true. He was a good man.” [Read. The. Rest.] In 1999, Seitz had one of the few one-on-ones Gandolfini ever did. “I’m not trying to be difficult,” he says. “It’s not that I’m afraid to reveal personal stuff. … It’s just that I really, genuinely don’t see why people would find that sort of thing so interesting.” Asked about his youth, he will volunteer only that he was raised “middle class” or “blue collar.” He says he always liked going to movies. (“John Wayne. You can’t go wrong with John Wayne.”) Asked what he majored in at Rutgers, he says, “I don’t remember.” [There’s more at the link.]

Star-Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno speaks of Gandolfini’s “natural Jerseyness” in this sweet-hearted remembrance: “I was friends with Jim Gandolfini during our freshman year at Rutgers. Pretty good friends. Good enough to drive him to his first summer-stock tryout at Chapel Hill and wait while he practiced lines with a couple hundred other kids who wanted to be actors and convened in some brick Gothic building at the University of North Carolina. He didn’t get the job.” Buzzfeed, of course, has a list: “11 Reasons Why James Gandolfini Was The Ultimate New Jerseyan.” Stephen Whitty collates quotations from one-on-ones he had with the man across the years. And, from Salon (of course), “James Gandolfini was fat and sexy: he showed that big guys can have erotic power.” Mike Figgis on directing “the Big Gand.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick: “As the seasons passed, Gandolfini gained weight at an alarming pace. His death, at the age of fifty-one, in Italy, does not come entirely as a shock. But that makes it no less a loss. Gandolfini was not a fantastically varied actor. He played within a certain range. Like Jackie Gleason, he’ll be remembered for a particular role, and a particular kind of role, but there is no underestimating his devotion to the part of a lifetime that was given to him. In the dozens of hours he had on the screen, he made Tony Soprano—lovable, repulsive, cunning, ignorant, brutal—more ruthlessly alive than any character we’ve ever encountered in television.” Mark Harris writes, “Gandolfini’s deep integrity — a quality he brought to every role he played — helped make ‘The Sopranos’ into an ongoing cliffhanger in which the suspense, over nearly a decade, was not about events so much as about a man’s character.” From my 2001 press junket interview with an affable Gandolfini before the launch of The Mexican, his first film role after “The Sopranos”: “One good thing about ‘The Sopranos’ is that I’m getting a lot more parts [where] I’m not yelling, I’m not raping or pillaging. There’s a lot more colors that are coming, thank God, ’cause beating up women gets a little old, y’know. You know, wait, take that back. Don’t put that down! That’s horrible! You know what I mean. These parts, you have to go to such a horrible place. Please don’t put that. You have to go a bad place. It’s not a lot of fun sometimes and something I don’t really want to do anymore.” So you look forward to getting away from bad guys. “Sure. I’d to do a little more comedy.” Steven Zeitchik has details on two more Gandolfini films stilll to come, including Enough Said, a new Nicole Holofcener comedy.

“Without ‘The Sopranos’ becoming a smash pop-culture phenom by telling an incredibly sophisticated story, it’s hard to imagine ‘Deadwood,’ ‘The Americans,’ or dozens of other ambitious dramas that came after; it’s hard to imagine the now widespread belief that TV could be art. Without the made men, no ‘Mad Men’ (whose creator, Matthew Weiner, apprenticed writing for ‘The Sopranos’),” writes James Poniewozik.

Dave Itzkoff‘s NYTimes obit: “Mr. Gandolfini, who had studied the Meisner technique of acting for two years, said that he used it to focus his anger and incorporate it into his performances. In an interview for the television series “Inside the Actors Studio,” Mr. Gandolfini said he would deliberately hit himself on the head or stay up all night to evoke the desired reaction. If you are tired, every single thing that somebody does makes you mad, Mr. Gandolfini said in the interview. “Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It’s silly, but it works.” [Below; 44’56”.]

Rod Lurie, directed Gandolfini in The Last Castle. Excerpts from Facebook: “James Gandolfini had a huge brain. He was certainly one of the most intellectual actors with whom I had ever worked. As production began, he was just learning how to play chess. He spent almost all his down time either reading about the game or playing. By the time we were done shooting there was not a person—myself included – who could defeat him. He was also a very skilled athlete and proud of it. There is a deleted scene in which his Colonel Winter is shooting baskets and he was supposed to miss each shot. I yelled “action.” Jim dribbled the ball a bit, looked around, saw 200 people watching, and proceeded to nail one shot after another—swish-swish-swish. I walked over to him. “Hey, man, you gotta start missing.”  “I’m sorry, I’m trying to miss—but it’s gotta be credible”. I walked back to the camera, yelled action again, and watched him hit one basked after another. Swish-swish-swish. I yelled “cut!” As I started to walk over again he waved me off. Again, I yelled “action” and now, once more—swish-swish-swish… and then, finally, just as the film was going to run out – CLUNK. He missed one. He looked over to me and smiled “You think we got it?” Last night, Lurie recalled, “Jim Gandolfini didn’t want to play Colonel Winter in The Last Castle at first. We offered him a ton of money, I think it was something like $5 million. But he was certain he couldn’t pull off playing a military man.Over the phone, I told him that I was a West Point graduate and could guide him through it. That was good, he told me, but still… I flew to NYC and had lunch with him at a diner in the meat packing district. I told him that this was a movie about the genius of leadership. He would be Salieri and Redford would be Mozart. “But why wouldn’t I want to be Mozart?” he asked me. “Because Salieri won the Oscar,” I responded. Jim grinned—it was a wide and mischievous grin—and he said, “So I get to act with Robert Redford?” A few months later we were on the set and Redford pointed at Jim and said, “Now, that’s an actor.”

Bob Strauss shows tact and taste: “Not casting Gandolfini in his film version of ‘Gods Of Carnage’ will probably go down as the second-biggest mistake of Roman Polanski’s life.” Lou Lumenick’s NYPost interview for The Last Castle.

“Less than a week before he died unexpectedly at age 51, Gandolfini met with a team at HBO to discuss barbeque ribs, North Korea, and a true tale so strange it could only be told as comedy,” Anthony Breznican reports.

Glenn Kenny‘s keen close reading of Gandolfini’s performance in Not Fade Away.

“One of my favorite of his performances was in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There; he not only melded perfectly into those velvety ’50s-noir shadows but managed, in his relatively brief turn as a crude, unsympathetic department-store owner named ‘Big Dave’ Brewster, to strike notes of unrestrained pathos almost too shocking for the film to withstand,” writes Variety’s Justin Chang of one of Gandolfini’s less-remembered roles. Noel Murray on Gandolfini in Where The Wild Things Are and Not Fade Away. Tasha Robinson: Romance & Cigarettes. “I’ve encountered many actors who are aloof about dealing with the press out of a sense of ego; Gandolfini’s unease seemed to come from a more genuine place,” writes Alan Seppinwall. “This was new to him, and too much. Early in the run of the series, he sent Christmas cards to TV critics to thank them for the nice things they had written about the show, and even put his home address on the envelopes. Later, on a night when he was receiving an award from the Television Critics Association, I saw him surrounded by reporters who wanted to interview him; he looked like a cornered animal, and when he won again in later years, he sent a video message.’ Because of that discomfort, I don’t know that Gandolfini was that disappointed that the movie business never knew what to do with him, either during or after the run of “The Sopranos.”

From 1988, the New York Times had a Style Section avant-le-lettre moment with Gandolfini: “Then there is Jim Gandolfini, who seems to thrive on the apartment-hopping life. Since moving to New York City four years ago, Mr. Gandolfini, 26 years old, has never had his name on a lease, never paid more than $400 a month in rent and never lived in one place more than 10 months. His wanderer’s existence has given him sojourns, some as brief as two months, in Hoboken, N.J.; Astoria, Queens; Clinton and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Park Slope and Flatbush in Brooklyn. ‘Moving, to me, is no big deal,” said Mr. Gandolfini, whose calling is the theater but whose living comes mostly from bartending and construction. ”I have a system down. I throw everything in plastic garbage bags and can be situated in my new place in minutes. Without my name on a lease, I’m in and out. I have no responsibilities.” (Gandolfini would live almost, almost another 26 years.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon