James Gandolfini Funeral: David Chase's Full Eulogy and Other Goodbyes
The late actor's wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, friend Thomas Richardson and dialogue coach Susan Aston also spoke at the funeral in New York.
James Gandolfini's wife, Sopranos creator David Chase, and others delivered emotional farewells to the late actor during his funeral service Thursday at Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York.
Chase's eulogy took the form of a letter to his former star, whom he said was a driven artist who somehow infused boy-like wonder into his portrayal of ruthless mob boss Tony Soprano.
"People always say, 'Tony Soprano – why do we love him so much when he’s such a prick?' My theory was they saw a little boy," Chase said. "They felt and they loved the little boy, and they sensed his love and hurt, and you brought all of that to it."
Deborah Lin Gandolfini remembered her husband as a devoted father for whom "family and friends meant everything." The actor's longtime friend Thomas Richardson praised Gandolfini's big spirit, which took him to war zones to support U.S. troops and to homeless shelters to feed the needy. And Gandolfini's dialogue coach and longtime collaborator Susan Aston said he exemplified the truth that "one has to remain vulnerable, and to be willing to be seen as human" to be a great actor.
Find the text of the four eulogies below.
Sopranos creator David Chase
Your family asked me to speak at your service and I am so honored and touched.
I’m also really scared and I say that because you of all people understand this, “I would like to run away and then call in four days from now from the beauty parlor.
I want to do a good job because I love you and because you always did a good job. I think the deal is I’m supposed to speak about the actor, artist, work part of your life. Others will have spoken beautifully and magnificently about the other beautiful and magnificent parts of you, the father, brother, friend. I guess what I was told was that I’m supposed to speak for your castmates whom you loved, your crew that you loved so much, for the people at HBO. … I hope I can speak for all of them and give credit to them and to you.
Experts told me to start with a joke or cite a funny anecdote. “Ha-ha-ha.” But as you yourself so often said, "I’m not feeling it." I’m too sad and full of despair. I’m writing to you because I’d partly like to have your advice because I remember how you did speeches. I saw you do a lot of them at award shows and stuff and invariably I think you used to express the thoughts on a sheet of paper and put it in your pocket and then not really refer to them. And consequentially, many of your speeches didn’t make sense.
I think that could happen except in your case it didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense because the feeling was real, the feeling was real, the feeling was real. I can’t say that enough.
I tried to write a traditional eulogy, but it came out like bad TV. So I’m writing you this letter and now I’m reading that letter in front of you. But it is being done to and for an audience that will give the funny opening a try. I hope it is funny. It is to me and I know it is to you.
One day toward the end of the show -- season four or five -- we were on the set shooting a scene and it was you and Stevie Van Zandt. I think the setup was that Tony had received news of the death of someone and it was inconvenient for him. It said “Tony opens the door angrily and closes it and starts to speak.”
The cameras rolled and you opened the refrigerator door and you slammed it really hard. You slammed it hard enough that it came open again and you slammed it again and it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator. The funny part for me was, I remember Steven Van Zandt – cause the cameras are now going and we have to play this whole five-minute scene with the refrigerator door open. And I remember Steven Van Zandt just standing there with his lip out and trying to figure out, “Well, what should I do first as Silvio? Cause he just broke my refrigerator.” And then as Steven the actor cause we’re about to play a scene with a refrigerator door open -- people don’t do that. And I remember him going over, trying to tinker with the door and fix it, and it didn’t work.
We finally had to call cut and we tried to fix the refrigerator door and it never really worked because then the gaffer tape showed inside the refrigerator and it was a problem all day long. And I remember you saying: "Ah, this role, this role. The places it takes me too, the things that I have to do, it’s so dark.” And I remember telling you, “Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? Does 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 refrigerator.”
Another image of you that comes to mind is very early on, we were shooting in that really hot summer in humid New Jersey, and I looked over and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair with your slacks rolled up to your knees, and black socks and black shoes, and a damp, wet handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going, “Well, that’s really not a cool look.” Then I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place because I said, Wow, I haven’t seen that done since my father used to do it and my Italian uncles used to do it and my Italian grandfather used to do it. And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey -- and they were stone masons, and your father, I know, worked with concrete. I don’t know what is with Italians and cement. I was so proud.
It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that, and when I say that you were my brother, this has a lot to do with that. Italian-American. Italian worker. Builder. That Jersey thing, whatever that means. The same social class. I really feel, though that I’m older than you, I always felt that we were brothers -- and partly based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything that we were doing and what we were about to embark on. I also feel you’re my brother because of the things we both loved. Family. Work. People in all their imperfection. Food. Alcohol. Talking. Rage. And a desire to bring the whole structure crashing down. We amused each other.
The image of my uncles and father reminded of something that happened between us one time because these guys were such men – that was the point of it – your father and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith about yourself and acting and a lot of things and were very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River and you told me, “You know what I want to be? I want to be a man, that’s all. I want to be a man.”
Now this is so odd because you are such a man. You’re a man in ways many males including myself wish they could be a man. The paradox about you as a man is that I always felt personally that with you I was seeing a young boy, a boy about Michael’s age right now. Cause you were ever boyish. At about that age where humankind and life on the planet are really opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their beautiful and horrible glory, and I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy amazed and confused and loving and amazed by all that, and that was all in your eyes. That was why I think you are a great actor. It’s because of that boy that was inside; it was a child reacting. Of course, you were intelligent, but it was a child reacting, and your reactions were often childish. By that I mean they were pre-school and they were pre-manners, they were pre-intellect; they were just simple emotions, straight and pure. And I think that your talent is you can take in the immensity of human kind and the universe and shine it back out to the rest of us like a huge light; and I believe that only a pure soul, like a child, can do that really well. And that was you.
Now to talk about a third guy between us, there was you, me and this third guy. People always say, “Tony Soprano – why do we love him so much when he’s such a prick?” My theory was they saw a little boy. They felt and they loved the little boy and they sensed his love and hurt and you brought all of that to it. You were a good boy. Your work with the Wounded Warriors is just one example of this. And I’m going to say something because I know you’d want me to say it – that no one should forget Tony Sirico’s efforts with you in this. He was there with you all the way, and in fact you said to me just recently, “You know it was more Tony than me.” And I know you and I know you’d want me to turn the spotlight on him or you wouldn’t be satisfied, so I’ve done that.
So Tony Soprano never changed, people say. He got darker, and he tried and he tried and he tried. And you tried and you tried, more than most of us and harder than most of us, and sometimes you tried too hard – that refrigerator is one example. Sometimes your efforts were a cost to you and to others, but you tried, and I’m thinking about the fact that – how nice you were to strangers on the street, fans, photographers. You would be patient, loving and personal, and then finally you would just do too much and then you’d snap and that’s of course what everybody read about, was the snapping.
I was asked to talk about the work part. And so I’ll talk about the show we used to do and how we used to do it. You know that we always ended an episode with a song. That was kind of like me and the writers letting the real geniuses do the heavy lifting – Bruce and Mick and Keith and Howlin' Wolf. So if this was an episode we’d end with a song, the song, as far as I’m concerned, would be Joan Osborne’s‘”What If God Was One of Us?”
The setup for this – we never did this and you never heard this – was that Tony was somehow lost in the Meadowlands and he didn’t have his car and his wallet and his car keys. I forget how we got there, there was some kind of a scrape – but he had nothing in his pockets but some change. He didn’t have his guys there; he didn’t have his gun. So mob boss Tony Soprano is just one of the working stiffs getting in line for the bus. And the way we were going to film it he was gonna get on the bus and the lyric that would’ve gone on with that would’ve been – and we don’t have Joan Osborne here to sing it – “If God had a face, what would it look like? And would you want to see if seeing meant that you would have to believe? And yeah, yeah. God is great. Yeah, yeah. God is good. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
So Tony would get on the bus and he would sit there, and the bus would pull out in this big billow of diesel smoke, and then the key lyric would come on: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home?” And that would’ve been playing over your face, Jimmy.
But then – this is where it gets strange – now I would have to update because of the events of last week, and I would let the song play further and let the lyrics be: “Just tryin' to make his way home, like a holy rolling stone, back up to heaven all alone, nobody callin' on the phone, 'Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome.”
Deborah Lin Gandolfini
On behalf of my family, I would like to thank everybody for the love and support during this incredibly difficult time. My husband was an honest, kind and loving man, and ironically he was extremely private. He cared more about others than about himself and took the time to ask whoever he met over the course of the day how they were doing. People mattered to him. He was always secretly helping someone. Jim, one of the things I loved most about you was watching you be the father that you were to Michael and Lily. Family and friends meant everything to you. Thank you for loving me unconditionally and for believing in me. I know all you ever wanted to do was make me happy. Thank you for the memories of the beautiful life we shared together. I will miss you terribly. I love you, Jim, and I always will. Rest in peace.
Thank you all for being here. Thanks to all you for moving heaven and earth to make this happen – you know who you are. Of course, Jim knows who you are. Thank you Lord for your love, for your light, for your goodness. Thank you for the people in this room and all the people not in this room who shared your love of Jim.
Jim is everything to me. More than a friend, more than a brother; he’s everything that’s good in this room. … Everything’s going to hell. The anger, the despair, the helplessness. It’s cruel to have died so young, so much to live for, with so much more to give.
Me and him stopped into a church -- and to say it was a church was saying that Jim could act. It was a basilica, one of the last basilicas done by Michelangelo, St. Johns. We lit a candle and prayed under the statue of St. Francis and the song, especially chosen by my family, which we’ll hear later tonight, St. Francis prayed with joy for our sins. He asked that we sing not so much to be consoled, but to console, not so much to be loved, but to love. It’s in giving in we receive, and in dying we are born to eternal life.
Lord thank you for giving us Jim. A child of peace, a child of goodness. Jim was good. As immense as his talent was, he was an even better person. It was ingrained in his soul that everything could be better and he could not rest until he made it better. He struggled, he failed. He struggled, he succeeded. He struggled, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It showed in his work, it showed in his family, it showed in his love. … Jim grew each and every day because he was open to the people in this world. Whether you knew Jim growing up or back from college -- Jim, James or Jimmy -- bartending or stage or screen, whether he worked for you, whether you worked for him, you worked by his side. He bonded with you. You became part of his life. He’d invite you to the Jersey Shore house. He’d treat you to family Thanksgiving dinners. He’d celebrate birthdays, New Years, nearly any excuse.
You nurtured Jamie -- instilling the values that made you the most giving and generous person anyone here has ever known -- and stood by his side.
Michael, you are every bit as smart and talented and loving as your father. You have shown such strength through this unbearable time. Your father would be proud of his son.
Deborah and Lily, there are no words as to how merciful and unfair this is. Know we are there for you. Michael has told us that he has made it his goal to make sure Lily knows her dad’s goodness and generosity.
People would ask me what’s it like to be with Jim everyday? And my response would always be the same: “Every day’s an adventure.” One day, he might bring in a duffel bag full of cash to help out a friend. Next day, he may be serving food to save the homeless. He could be researching to find the truth of a role. Or riding the Mardi Gras float the year after Katrina. He could be with our war-torn heroes in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or helping those torn apart by Sandy recently on the Jersey Shore. He’d be battling Warners for … his contract or swimming with sharks in Hawaii or racing to make time on Broadway or sharing sushi with teamsters on set. Or watching Lily blow raspberries. Or playing nights of four-round poker with friends and family. Every day was an adventure.
You really made the most of every day. Seems like he crammed a hundred years of memories into a life too short. When we created too much chaos, he might stop and say, “Breathe.” When things were truly falling apart he’d say, “Love.” … Since it is in giving that we receive and a loving that we are loved, Jim was filled with the love of you all.
I could talk forever about Jim and I will, so everyone will know his goodness. By the spirit of St. Francis let me end with this: It is hidden in the rock-bottom pit of loss that we find the most need for one another’s comfort. When Jim focused his incredible gaze on you, you felt so important.
Do you know how much you mattered? The greatness you can achieve and the joy you can bring to the world. Then that gaze turned to a hug and that hug seemed too tight and he held it too long but it felt so impossibly light.
So many have said, “Is there anything I can do?”
On behalf of Jim, may I please ask a favor? Could you please stand? Could you please grab the people next to you, close your eyes, think of Jim and hug. And hug people too tight, and hug your loved one too long. For it is in hugging that we are hugged. And that his passing is forever with us.
I read once that the opposite of strength is not weakness – that the opposite of strength is vulnerability. But that one can only be as strong as one allows himself to be vulnerable.
Our beloved James’ ability to remain vulnerable, to keep his heart open, in his life and in his work is what allowed us all to feel connected to him, to feel that he knew our struggles, to feel he knew our own hearts, to feel like he was reaching across the room or through the screen to touch us in our tender places and to teach us to be OK in our own humanness.
A lot has been said about James’ work. He was a master. As his friend and creative collaborator for over 25 years, I can attest to that. He worked hard. He was disciplined. He studied his roles, and he did his homework with his scripts. He used his brilliant mind to ask the questions that would prepare his heart for each scene. But when the scene started, James came into absolute presence and allowed himself through an act of faith to fall into the unknown. Trusting that an invisible net would rise up to break his fall and carry him to an unchartered place, a place he could have not predetermined in his own mind.
Most of us have heard or believe for ourselves that James was one of the best. That he strove for excellence in his work. I witnessed that. But what you might not know is that he strove equally for another thing. In his small home office that he referred to as The Cave, where he and I worked late nights on the next day’s scenes, this other thing he strove for was to be able to accept himself on the occasions where he fell short of his intentions.
At these times, I would remind James of his own words to me. When we were acting in a basement theater in the Village in the '80s. We were standing backstage, nervous. He was on one side of the stage. I was on the other. I was trying to sequester myself, doing my acting thing, and he yelled over to me while the preshow music was blaring.
“Aston, what’s the worst thing that can happen? We suck?”
These were liberating words of wisdom. His knowing that in order create well one must be willing to make a mess of things. One has to be willing to miss the mark. One has to remain vulnerable, and to be willing to be seen as human. Every day, over and over again.
In my last conversation with James, he told me why he was turning down an offer for a movie that shoots this summer. He said it was more important than it’s ever been to spend the summer with his family and friends on the Jersey Shore and in California. He said, “I don’t want to lose any of the time I have with Michael and Lily this summer. Quality time, time with family and friends – that’s worth more than all that other stuff.”
May we come into presence here in this beautiful space to celebrate James’ life, to be with you, Deborah, with you, Michael and Lily, with you, Lisa and John, with all of his family, with all of his friends, with everyone who loved him. James’ dear friend Trixy commented the other day on how fitting it was that his service would be at St. John the Divine, a space that is big enough to hold his huge heart and spirit. I agreed with her then, but now I think we should be on a mountaintop under the expanse of the sky and the heavens with nothing surrounding us, save our Creator.
Another friend commented, “This is going to be a tough week." I said, “Yes, but this is the easy part. The hardest part will be, how will we live the rest of our lives without James, Jamie, Jim, Jimmy, Buck?”
Perhaps we will do this by allowing ourselves to do as he did in his work. We will struggle. We will trust. We will let go. We will fall into the unknown. Trusting again that we will be delivered to a new understanding.
James, my big teddy bear friend, I miss you now. I will miss working with you and playing with you. I will miss the way you made me laugh. I will remember that you never were embarrassed by how loudly I laughed. I will miss your silly fond messages, your funny emails out of the blue, your poetry and your impromptu original songs. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for allowing me to love you. Thank you for loving me, and thank you for loving all of us.