James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 51, became a Hollywood icon playing Tony Soprano, a mob boss groping with the psychological tolls of living a life of daily brutality. Gandolfini used his celebrity to shine a light on the challenges facing members of the U.S. Armed Forces, many of whom, though separated by a moral chasm, suffered from similar issues.
The actor produced several documentaries for HBO on the topic after a visit to the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom left him devastated and deeply moved by their sacrifices. The first, made in conjunction with the Wounded Warrior Project, was Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq and featured interviews with soldiers who survived the war with their lives intact but were left with serious physical injuries.
“I came back and was struck by the silence here in this country about what’s going on over there,” Gandolfini told NBC Nightly News‘ Brian Williams in 2007. “When I talked to these soldiers, I was struck by — you can be cynical on both coasts or wherever you are — honor, duty, loyalty to your country. It hit me. I guess some people forget about that, or don’t think about it.”
HBO threw a premiere party for the documentary at the Morgan Library in New York. It was a somewhat subdued affair compared to may of the network’s parties. Men — and at least one woman — in uniform with missing arms and legs were mingling, a little uncomfortably, at a cocktail party in their honor. But they weren’t uncomfortable around Gandolfini. And he wasn’t in any way uncomfortable around them.
Suddenly, one of the veterans, a young man, started to become agitated and began to yell incoherently. The cocktail party guests were shocked and embarrassed. Gandolfini bounded from the other side of the room and hugged him. “You’re alright, you’re alright. We love you,” he said.
Gandolfini followed that film three years later with Wartorn: 1861-2010, another HBO documentary that traced the history of post-traumatic stress disorder — previously known as shell-shock and combat fatigue — throughout American history.
Shifting the focus to war’s invisible wounds, Wartorn, which Gandolfini executive produced, featured the moving stories of vets of WWII, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom — some of whom spoke out about PTSD for the first time. Gandolfini himself led several insightful conversations with top U.S. military personnel, including Gen. Ray Odierno, then-commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army.
Co-director Jon Alpert thinks that Gandolfini himself was the only reason many of these soldiers were willing to open up about these very personal struggles.
“People feel like they know him,” Alpert said in 2010. “First of all, he’s very sincere in his concern. Second, he’s been in their living rooms every Sunday for five years. He portrays a big tough guy who was psychologically wounded by the things he’s had to do and he’s seen. As a result of that, they’re ready to talk. From the lowest ranking service member to the top generals, they opened up very quickly to him.”
“Jim was a wonderful friend. Of mine and of America’s soldiers,” Alpert told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. “He appreciated their sacrifice and service and worked to help them in any way he could.”
East Coast Television Editor Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.