James Gandolfini's friends, loved ones and collaborators celebrated him Thursday as a teddy bear of a man who hugged a little too hard, an actor who committed so intensely to scenes that he once broke a refrigerator, and a man's man whose boyishness made him great.
New York's stately Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine was filled with a who's who of New York and New Jersey luminaries including Gov. Chris Christie, "Sopranos" creator David Chase and Gandolfini's co-stars on the HBO mob drama. Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Steve Buscemi were among them. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes also attended.
Also see photos: Hollywood Gathers to Pay Respects at James Gandolfini's Funeral
Chase (above), as well as Gandolfini's wife and friends, spoke in remembrance of the actor, who died of a heart attack last week at 51. He recalled shooting a scene in which Gandolfini slammed a fridge so hard it broke — and then complained about the dark places he had to go for the role of mob boss Tony Soprano. Chase says he remembered telling Gandolfini:
"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 fridge."
Later he addressed Gandolfini, as if reading him a letter: "Sometimes you tried too hard. That refrigerator was one example."
He said Gandolfini once confided to him, "I want to be a man," which struck him as ironic because Gandolfini was so much manlier than so many other men. What gave him his greatness, however, was a childlike opennes to feelings, unfiltered by excess intellectualizing.
"Of course you were intelligent, but it was a child reacting, and your reactions were often childish," Chase said. "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."
In Gandolfini, Chase said, he could also see "a sad boy." He believes audiences did, too.
(At right, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie)
"You were a good boy," Chase said, recalling Gandolfini's work with wounded veterans — just one of the charitable contributions he downplayed.
The Rev. James A. Kowalski said Gandolfini would often stop his car when he heard about a tragedy on the radio and make a note to himself to find a way to help. Then he did, anonymously.
Gandolfini's wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, said that he was "always secretly helping someone."
His friend, Thomas Richardson, remembered him for hugging a little too long and hard — and how good it felt. He asked mourners to rise and wrap their arms around the people beside them, even if they were strangers, and to give them a good squeeze in memory of Gandolfini.
Susan Aston, another friend, recalled working on scenes with him in the home office he called "the cave." She recalled appearing in a pay with her "big Teddy Bear of a friend" before his "Sopranos" fame.
(At left, Edie Falco)
Just before the play began, she said, he called out to her from across the stage: "Aston! What's the worst that can happen? We suck," she recalled.
She and others said Gandolfini often struggled for his craft and was willing to take risks and fail. She said Gandolfini's loved ones will try to go on without him the same way he went through life.
"We will struggle, we will trust, we will let go," she said.
Aston said Gandolfini had passed up a movie role this summer so that he could spend more time with his children, 13-year-old Michael, and 9-month-old Lily. Michael, who spent the day with Gandolfini in Rome before the actor's death, was his lead pallbearer. He bore a striking resemblance to his father.
Many told stories that have become iconic in the days since Gandolfini's death, including buying sushi for the "Sopranos" crew. Chase began his remarks by alluding to a time, recounted in a recent GQ article, when an overwhelmed Gandolfini disappeared for days during shooting. He finally wandered into the first open business he saw and asked to use the phone.
"I'd like to run away and call in four days from now from the beauty parlour," Chase joked.
Chase recalled shooting one sweltering day in New Jersey, and watching Gandolfini cool off by sitting in an aluminum chair with his pants legs rolled up and a wet handkerchief on his neck, his black shoes and socks still on. Chase had seen his father, grandfather and uncles relatives cool off the same way, he said.
"And I remember looking over there and going, 'Well, that’s really not a cool look.” But I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place," Chase said. "It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that."
As he said it, he broke down briefly.
In his own way, Gandolfini continued a family tradition of building. Chase noted that many of his own relatives were stone masons, and that Gandolfini's father had worked with concrete.
"I don't know what it is with Italians and cement," Chase joked.
Still imagining himself writing to Gandolfini, he recalled a "Sopranos" scene he had imagined but never shot. Tony would be lost in the Meadowlands with no wallet, keys or gun. He would have only enough change to take the bus. As he boarded, Joan Osborne's "What If God Was One of Us" would play.
Chase imagined the lyrics as the camera focused on Gandolfini's weary face:
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
The actor's death made the song's final lyrics even more appropriate, he said:
Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
Except for the pope maybe in Rome
Chase signed his imagined letter to Gandolfini: "Love, David."
And with that he ended it, as abruptly as the cut to black that ended their show.