This evening’s distressing news from Italy, that actor James Gandolfini has died, aged 51, was made just that much more upsetting and, frankly, eerie by something your blogger has been doing since late May. Several weeks ago I began re-watching, episode by episode, “The Sopranos.” I’m nearly finished with season three, about half way through the ground-breaking series. Tonight’s sit-down with my old friends from New Jersey will not be the same.

There’s little reason to review The Sopranos’ significance in the history of modern cable television. In short, The Sopranos elevated cable to what it is today—the dominant medium for serious drama. Series like “Mad Men,” whose creator Matthew Weiner made his bones as a writer for The Sopranos, sit atop Tony Soprano’s very broad shoulders.

Oh, those shoulders. I stood in line directly behind James Gandolfini as we waited for a drink in a New York City restaurant several years ago. The venue, an Italian restaurant, of course, had been reserved by HBO for a party to celebrate a new season of The Sopranos. Nearly all the cast was there, but Gandolfini stood out. Not because of his personality, he was shy, sometimes painfully so. Seeing him during TCA, the twice-yearly event where members of the Television Critics Association come to Hollywood to quiz actors, directors and producers about upcoming series, made that clear. He didn’t like talking about himself, which made him a rarity among actors. His session with James Lipton on Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” is further evidence of his reticence.

It was Gandolfini’s stature that was most striking that evening in the Italian restaurant. He stood six feet one, but seemed much taller. He was an imposing figure. Mostly it was his width. Gandolfini was as wide as a house. When he and Vincent Curatola, much better known as Johnny “Sack” Sacrimone, stood near the bar, it was clear why David Chase had cast the two actors to play leaders of rival families in the series. They seemed to tower above the rest of us.

But my favorite remembrance of Gandolfini had nothing to do with The Sopranos, although again it was at a party. The event was a long-forgotten HBO party held on a gorgeous early evening, poolside at a Hollywood hotel. Stars from myriad HBO series were in attendance, most notably the cast of “Entourage,” whose presence at a Hollywood party made the evening a case of life imitating art. While most TV critics swarmed around the Entourage actors, Gandolfini was working as a waiter.

Earlier in the day at TCA, HBO had unveiled clips of Gandolfini’s first post-The Sopranos project for the network, a documentary about wounded veterans of the Iraq War called “Alive Day Memories.” It was a powerful piece where the actor, off camera, interviewed 10 wounded veterans. The title refers to the day that each of the 10 veterans should have died; medical technology had kept them alive. It earned an Emmy nomination.

Gandolfini had spent much of the TCA session fending off questions about himself, his next acting project, was a The Sopranos film in the works? At one point he became annoyed with the critics’ questions, telling them the session was meant to discuss Alive Day Memories, which was a serious piece about an important topic. By comparison, he said, his future as an actor was trivial. You could almost hear Tony Soprano admonishing a wayward member of his gang to "keep your eye on the big picture, huh."

That evening, a number of the veterans featured in the documentary, many of them in wheelchairs, were at the party. Some had their spouses and partners with them. Gandolfini was waiting on the entire table hand and foot. He was running drinks and food to and from the buffet to the veterans’ table. Clearly he wanted his special guests, men and women who had sacrificed their bodies for America, to enjoy and not move a muscle. It was his treat.
   
Ah, but those feisty TV critics, many of whom habitually attend parties with their notebooks and recorders. A few brave souls, oblivious to what Gandolfini was doing or well aware of it, sidled up to this whirling dervish of food and drink who had played Tony Soprano for six seasons. Gandolfini had no time for critics’ questions; he was serving people who had served their country.

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