NEW YORK – The funeral of James Gandolfini took place in one of the largest churches in the world and didn’t stint on ceremony.
Still, the estimated 1,500 mourners who gathered Thursday in New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine seemed part of an intimate affair. They came to pay their respects to a plain but complex man whose sudden death eight days before had left all of them feeling a loss.
During the service, Gandolfini was remembered by the creator of “The Sopranos” as an actor who had brought a key element to mob boss Tony Soprano: Tony’s inner child-like quality.
For a man who, in so many ways, was an unrepentant brute, that underlying purity was what gave viewers permission to love him.
“You brought ALL of that to it,” said David Chase in remarks he delivered as if an open letter to his fallen friend and “Sopranos” star.
Even though Gandolfini was indisputably a formidable man both on and off the screen, Chase also saw him as a boy – “sad, amazed, confused and loving,” he summed up, addressing his subject: “You could see it in your eyes. And that’s why you are a great actor.”
Susan Aston, who for decades was Gandolfini’s dialogue coach and collaborator, spoke of how he wrestled to find truth in his performances.
“He worked hard,” she said. “He was disciplined. He studied his roles and did his homework.” But then, when the cameras rolled, his performance took over and, “through an act of faith, he allowed himself to go to an uncharted place. ... He remained vulnerable, and kept his heart open in his life and in his work.”
The 51-year-old actor died of a heart attack last week while vacationing with his 13-year-old son in Italy. It was cruel end to a holiday meant to be part of a summer that Gandolfini was devoting to his family – including his son and his 9-month-old daughter – by even turning down a movie role, according to Aston, citing what she said was her final conversation with him.
Aston said he told her “I don’t want to lose any of the time I have with Michael and Lily this summer.”
The actor’s widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, also spoke at the ceremony, as did longtime friend Thomas Richardson, who affectionately described Gandolfini as a man “who hugged too tight and held too long.” But now facing a world without hugs from Gandolfini, Richardson invited the congregation to stand and share hugs with their neighbors.
“It is in hugging that we are hugged,” he declared.
A private family wake was held for the actor Wednesday in New Jersey.
Broadway theaters paid tribute by dimming their lights briefly Wednesday night. Gandolfini was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009 as an actor in “God of Carnage.”
For Thursday’s service, celebrities and fellow actors helped make up the capacity audience.
Those from “The Sopranos” included Edie Falco, Joe Pantoliano, Dominic Chianese, Steve Schirripa, Aida Turturro, Vincent Curatola, Tony Sirico, Lorraine Bracco, Steve Buscemi and Michael Imperioli.
Others from the entertainment community included Julianna Margulies, Alec Baldwin, Chris Noth, Marcia Gay Harden, Dick Cavett and Steve Carell.
NBC News’ Brian Williams was in attendance. So was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
So was Saul Stein, 60, a resident of Harlem.
“I came to pay my respects today because he’s a character I identify with, a family man,” Stein said as he waited in line outside the church.
New Jersey accents were easy to hear among those hoping for a chance to get in. A few people spoke in Italian.
Of course, both New Jersey and Italian-Americans played a big part of “The Sopranos,” which originally ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007.
Chase recalled a hot Jersey day early in the show’s production that bonded him with Gandolfini – with whom he shared Italian-American working-class roots – for all times.
Waiting to shoot the next scene, Gandolfini was seated in an aluminum lawn chair with his slacks rolled up, black socks and black shoes exposed, and a damp cloth on his head in an effort to find some relief from the heat.
“I hadn’t seen that done since my father used to do it, and my Italian uncle, and my grandfather,” said Chase. “They were laborers in the hot sun of New Jersey.”
“I was filled with love,” Chase said, struggling to keep his composure, as he described the sight of Gandolfini in the broiling sun.
“I always felt we are brothers,” he said, “based on that day.”
Associated Press correspondent Bethan McKernan and Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.