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This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The four of us in God of Carnage in the New York production (2009) were corners to the square. Not one of us can talk about it now without feeling there’s an empty corner now. The containment of that boxing arena, Jim was on one corner, we always had to balance that square — now there’s a hole there and so much energy is pouring out. James was such a caretaker, he took care of all of us. If James was getting something — a raise, for instance, a bonus — then he insisted we all had to have it. I understand he was like that on The Sopranos, too — everyone has to benefit if he benefits. He was so completely generous and fair, a big teddy bear. It was so interesting watching him in rehearsal for the initial New York run — we were all figuring things out together. I remember the day that James said the line, “I love you too, mom” angrily — he figured out that if he let his anger show, it was funny. During the run, [director] Matthew Warchus kept insisting to us that their marriage was over — this is it, the ride’s done. Both James and I were like, “I don’t think so.” And I think the reason we didn’t think it was over was because we just loved each other as people. So all that was bearable, all that fighting, yelling, violence between the characters. It was actually hard to do because I adored him so much. I thought Matthew was wrong. And James agreed. I think our real mutual warmth intervened.
By the time we took the production to L.A. for the second run a year later, I loved him even more. But you know, in a year a life can really change, and that was true for all of us — James, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and myself. At that point, my own marriage was breaking up — and James was an absolute rock for me, he even taught me how to help my kids get through it, since he’d been through it himself. He was a gorgeous friend, he was there so many times for me, for a drink, a coffee, a long talk. We stayed in touch after the play — I’d see him at different premieres or give him a call. When he made [Not Fade Away], where he plays the blue-collar father of a boy going off to college, his people asked me to write something about him in this role. I wrote, “He was unmitigatedly honest, he doesn’t care if you like him or not … but he exposes their humanness, their ugliness, their vulnerability — everyone could identify with him onscreen. He’s not a hero, not a pretty boy, but so much more than that. His size, his very presence, has such an ability — there is a real noble aspect to him; you identify and respect him as a leader who understands right and wrong and strives for right.”
Two days later, this package comes from James — a big Italian basket of sausages and food. He was always sending food, particularly Italian food. On opening night of God of Carnage, he gave the cast a gift of two big bowls of cheese and a big, long sausage — you can only imagine how it was arranged! He had a great sense of humor, could laugh at life, at himself. He was funny — James was funny. A little blue sometimes, which was really funny.
My kids were backstage with me a lot, and they would play in the costume shop, making things and doing crafts — fun stuff. James would come by and hang out with us up there — it felt very family. James was always the protector. Now James is the protector looking down on us. He’ll organize things up there, he’ll make sure it’s a fair system. It’s the only thing that makes me be OK with this, imagining that he’s looking out for all of us.
He was a very smart and articulate person, but the public never really saw that because he didn’t like to do interviews or expose himself too much. He felt he needed to protect himself and his family. He was funny, creative, he was a real mensch, and working with him was always, “Let’s work it out, you can pound me, I can take it.” He was just a mensch.
When we all came to L.A. after a year off, our lives had all changed. James and Deb were working on a baby, Jeff’s kids went to college, I got a divorce — everyone’s lives got darker, and the play got darker. I finally did know a marriage can really end. We arrived there after a week of rehearsal and did the same thing every night before we went on — had a group hug — we never didn’t connect before the play. In a lot of plays, that doesn’t happen. One of the things I particularly liked about him in this role was that James had a sense of danger to him — he gave it a certain brutality. I liked that brutality, that he understood the dark side.
He was in such a good place in his life. He and Deb had a beautiful baby — he was happy. That is good, it was life realized — a life unrealized is sad.
I think he’d found real happiness and devotion. He was doing it all. He played hard, and he loved hard. It was a beautiful time I had with him.
God, I miss him.
Read more tributes to Gandolfini below:
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