How James Gandolfini’s Body Got Back to America

The friend who escorted him back, Michael Kobold, says the task was as large as the actor’s body and legacy

The challenges of extracting the remains of James Gandolfini from Italy were immense, requiring the help of some high-ranking politicians, a random Irish billionaire, and a German watchmaker named Michael Kobold.

In GQ’s Men of the Year issue’s cover feature on the “Sopranos” star released Monday, Kobold tells the incredible tale of his unlikely friendship with the late actor, and how he became the man in charge of returning Gandolfini’s body to the United States from Italy.

It was no easy task.

Also read: Robert De Niro Takes on James Gandolfini Role on HBO’s ‘Criminal Justice’

“The initial news in Rome wasn’t good: Patricia Hill, the U.S. vice consul at the embassy, told me it would be as long as a week before the body could be cleared,” Kobold told the magazine.

He continued, “Jim had passed on a Wednesday night and was already at the morgue by the time I got to Rome the next morning. After an autopsy, he would be held until we could get his remains repatriated. But in the near term, progress was looking grim.”

It took quite a bit of work for Kobold — who the Gandolfini family entrusted with the enormous task — to navigate through the red tape and return his friend’s body to America. Kobold called in favors from both the State Department and Bill Clinton’s office in New York. To this day, he is not sure who pulled the necessary strings — but there were plenty that required tugging in this case.

See photos: Hollywood Gathers to Pay Respects at James Gandolfini’s Funeral

Gandolfini’s family did not want his remains returned via a public, commercial airliner. The last thing they — or Kobold — wanted to see was the beloved star’s casket splashed across newspapers. But private jets don’t typically have the space to house actor’s of Gandolfini’s stature:

“But he was a big guy, and a big guy requires a big casket,” Kobold said. “Once that casket is inside the protective outer casket necessary for transport, it’s downright massive — too big for your typical Gulfstream.”

Kobold concluded in the story: “We had to find another plane, and I frantically called everyone I could think of who might help — HBO, wealthy clients — until finally a solution appeared: an Irish billionaire’s Airbus A319 was available and could land in Rome in less than a day.”