It’s never easy to say goodbye, but on Thursday, June 27, Sopranos creator David Chase pushed through and delivered a moving eulogy for his star and close friend James Gandolfini during a celeb-studded ceremony at New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.
Chase, who was one of four speakers at the funeral (Gandolfini’s widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, and two other family friends also spoke), delivered his speech in the form of a letter to the late actor, addressing him as “Jimmy” and recalling many fond memories that the pair shared on the set of the hit HBO series.
The beloved actor’s costars, including Edie Falco, Joe Pantoliano and Dominic Chianese, were also on-hand for the ceremony, as well as New York Gov. Chris Christie and Gandolfini’s longtime dialogue coach Susan Aston.
Gandolfini died of a heart attack at the age of 51 in Rome, Italy on Wednesday, June 19, and his death has sparked reactions from celebrity pals and admirers from all across the industry. Read the full transcript of Chase’s poignant eulogy below.
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 will understand this. I’d like to run away and 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’s work part of your life. Others will have spoken beautifully and magnificently about the other beautiful and magnificent parts of you: father, brother, friend. I guess what I was told is I’m also supposed to speak for your castmates whom you loved, for your crew that you loved so much, for the people at HBO, and Journey. I hope I can speak for all of them today and for you.
I asked around, and experts told me to start with a joke and a funny anecdote. “Ha ha ha.” But as you yourself so often said, I’m not feline’ it. I’m too sad and full of despair. I’m writing to you partly because I would like to have had your advice. Because I remember how you did speeches. I saw you do a lot of them at awards shows and stuff, and invariably you would scratch two or three thoughts on a sheet of paper and put it in your pocket, and then not really refer to it. And consequently, a lot of your speeches didn’t make sense. I think that could happen in here, 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, so I’ll give the funny opening a try. I hope that it’s funny; it is to me and it is to you.
And that is, one day toward the end of the show — maybe season 4 or season 5 — we were on the set shooting a scene with Stevie Van Zandt, and I think the set-up was that Tony had received news of the death of someone, and it was inconvenient for him. And it said, “Tony opens the refrigerator door, closes it and he starts to speak.” And 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 so then you slammed it again, then it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator.
And the funny part for me is I remember Steven Van Zandt — because the cameras are going, we have to play this whole scene with a refrigerator door opening — I remember Steven Van Zandt standing there with his lip out, trying to figure out, “Well, what should I do? First, as Silvio, because he just ruined my refrigerator. And also as Steven the actor, because we’re now going to play a scene with the refrigerator door open; people don’t do that.” And I remember him going over there and trying to tinker with the door and fix it, and it didn’t work. And so we finally had to call cut, and we had to fix the refrigerator door, and it never really worked, because the gaffer tape showed on 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 to, the things I have to do, it’s so dark.” And I remember telling you, “Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? 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.”
Another memory of you that comes to mind is from very early on — might have been the pilot, I don’t know. We were shooting in that really hot and humid summer New Jersey heat. And I looked over, and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair, with your slacks rolled up to your knees, in black socks and black shoes, and a wet handkerchief on your head. 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. I said, “Wow, I haven’t seen that done since my father used to do it, and my Italian uncles use to do it, and my Italian grandfather used to do it.” And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey. They were stone masons, and your father worked with concrete. I don’t know what it is with Italians and cement. And I was so proud of our heritage — it made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that.
When I said before 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 that, though I’m older than you, and always felt, that we are brothers. And it was really based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything we were doing and about to embark on.
I also feel you’re my brother in that we have different tastes, but there are things we both love, which was 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 me of something that happened between us one time. Because these guys were such men — your father and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith about yourself and acting, a lot of things, were very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River, and you told me, you said, “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 many 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 very boyish. And about the age when 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. And that was why, I think, you were a great actor: because of that boy who was inside. He was a child reacting. Of course you were intelligent, but it was a child reacting, and your reactions were often childish. 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. And I think your talent is that you can take in the immensity of humankind and the universe, and shine it out to the rest of us like a huge bright 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 and me and this third guy. People always say, “Tony Soprano. Why did we love him so much when he was such a prick?” And my theory was, they saw the 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 was just one example of this. And I’m going to say something because I know that you’d want me to say it in public: 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, “It’s more Tony than me.” And I know you, and I know you would 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. I don’t know how they can misunderstand that. 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 at cost to you and others, but you tried. And I’m thinking about the fact of 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 would 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, everybody knows 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 Howling Wolf and a bunch of them. So if this was an episode, it would end with a song. And the song, as far as I’m concerned, would be Joan Osborne’s “(What If God Was) One Of Us?” And the set-up for this — we never did this, and you never even heard this — is that Tony was somehow lost in the Meadowlands. He didn’t have his car, and his wallet, and his car keys. I forget how he got there — there was some kind of a scrape — but he had nothing in his pocket but some change. He didn’t have his guys with him, he didn’t have his gun. And so mob boss Tony Soprano had to be one of the working stiffs, getting in line for the bus. And the way we were going to film it, he was going to get on the bus, and the lyric that would’ve one over that would’ve been — and we don’t have Joan Osborne to sing it:
If God had a face
what would it look like?
And would you want to see
if seeing meant you had 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, and it was:
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
And that would’ve been playing over your face, Jimmy. But then — and this is where it gets kind of strange — now I would have to update, because of the events of the last week. And I would let the song play further, and the lyrics would be:
Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rollin’ stone
Back up to Heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope, maybe, in Rome.
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