Two years ago, I posted the story below...
It is rare that I ever feel any kind of real emotion at the passing of a celebrity. But, I am stunned by James Gandolfini deciding to leave the building at 51 years old. I have not watched a single series since the end of The Sopranos. It was too much. My brain would be getting itchy by 4pm on Sundays. My daughter could not be subjected to the cursing and casual violence. The apartment had to be prepped. By 8pm, I'd be sorta queasy with anticipation. I was utterly hooked. Arrrgh!
But, the fact is, I already know, there will never be another series ever with an anchor like Tony Soprano. It turned out to be the role of a lifetime, fuck.
I took to taping episodes so I could super slo-mo Gandolfini's reaction shots. In the moment when Artie Bucco confesses his love for his new hostess, Adriana La Cerva, Gandolfini expresses true shocked surprise, hilarity, compassion, and finally raw fear for Artie should Christopher find out. All this happens on Gandolfini's face in roughly one second.
I put James Gandolfini in the same league as Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, Casale... a master!
Anyway, below is my piece from May, 2011... More than anything, the warm wit and natural charisma of James Gandolfini is here, off stage, off duty, in the all too mortal flesh.
I know Tony and his whole family bought it at that restaurant where they serve Last Communion Onion Rings. I accepted that. James Gandolfini gone. That I'm having a lot of trouble with.
So, I have this friend...
He was a two-or-three-times-a-week customer at the record store I ran in the East Village back the 1980s. Back in the day, as we all seem to say nowadays, he was a voracious purchaser of "collectibles." You know, the stuff old school record stores have up on the wall for $40 to $100... test pressings, mono versions, promo-onlys, out-of-prints...
He was (and, oddly enough, still is) a teddibly suave and witty Brit. Very much the scholar, very friendly. After awhile, I just started giving the guy price breaks... and the more he bought, the bigger the break he got. And, he never ever asked for one. Always a great move, shoppers. And... we discovered we really liked each other. Somehow, over the years, we never lost touch, and soon became good friends.
He turned out to be a heavyweight Broadway publicist.
Over these last couple of decades, he has graciously repaid my friendly price breaks with any number of first-10-rows-on-the-aisle-seats to the hottest shows on Broadway, usually while they're in previews, which is way more fun, anyway. The audience is almost always entirely serious theater types. The actors are fresh as daisies...
Sometimes he even got us tickets for Opening Nights, the height of New York glamor.
One day, in August 2002, my dear theater friend called to tell me that, while he couldn't get us the usual downstairs in the orchestra, if wifey Susan and I would be interested in seeing Frankie & Johnnie starring Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci on Opening Night from the front row of the first mezzanine, he had a pair waiting for us.
Carmela Soprano on Broadway! Oh my God, are you kidding?!
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes... Thank you Thank you Thank you!
Digression: I am of the opinion that The Sopranos is the greatest TV series of all time, likely never to be topped.
So, a few weeks later, it was now less than five minutes 'til the curtain goes up, we're in our wonderful seats and I suddenly realized... I have to... peeeeeee!
"I'll be right back, Hon..."
I went tear-assing down the stairs against the current of everyone else trying to get to their seats upstairs. I didn't see the bathroom or a sign for one anywhere.
Then, way down near the stage, I spotted a little dimly lit open area on the left side of the theater. Oh, goodie, there it is! I practically jogged down the aisle and plunged into this little room that I was dearly hoping was the loo.
Instead, I'm found myself in a 10 by 10 foot usher's alcove. There were six men already crowded into this claustrophobic space. Looking for the men's room, I'd found instead that I was face-to-face with Tony Soprano, Paulie Walnuts, Furio Giunta from Italy, Johnny Sac, Big Pussy, and Uncle June, all there to root for their Edie on Opening Night.
Quick Tawdry - But Necessary - Aside: The opening scene of Frankie & Johnnie featured Tucci and Carmela in bed, making love. They seemed to be... ummm... unclothed. No doubt this facilitated their during-the-run affair. Then, the fabulous Ms. Falco got out of bed stark naked. I have to report that her heiney was a 17 on a 10 scale.
Anyway, my urgent need to pee instantly evaporated at the sight of about half the motherfuckin' cast of The Sopranos standing directly front of me.
I will never have any idea what weird bravado came over me, but, I stepped right up to James Gandolfini, draped my arm over his shoulder (What!?), he looked at me like "This better be good, ass!" and I said, with all the Mafia Tony arrogance I could muster...
"For 35 years, The Avengers was the greatest show in the history of television. The Sopranos... blows... it... awwwayyyyy!"
Tony Soprano looked at me, smiled, wagged his pointer finger in my face in the classic Mafioso manner, pointing at the ceiling, and said...
"Mrs. Peel?! I don't think so!"
How fucking great a line is that?!
Then, to top it off, Furio leans in and says (without a trace of accent, btw)...
"Let me guess, you're in the music business."
I was astonished!
"How in the fuck did you know that?!" said me.
And all six actors burst out laughing... as in, uproariously.
"How!? How did you know that?!"
They all laughed even harder.
I shrugged, told them that it was an honor to meet them all, that their show was the best ever, with apologies to Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee, but I'd been looking for a bathroom and that I was now going to find it.
Well, okay, music biz guy. Enjoy the show! They all cheerily waved goodbye.
I still have no idea how Furio knew that and/or why they all thought it was so funny.
Once I had found and used the bathroom, I frantically made my way back upstairs through the densely packed throng that had waited 'til the last possible minute to get to their seats.
At the top of the stairs, the corridor narrowed and I suddenly found myself seriously squished up against some short stocky guy. As I said "Sorry...", I realized I was looking straight into the face of Nathan Lane, no more than 10 or 12 inches from my own nose. Now, Mr. Lane is notorious for being truly grumpy offstage/offscreen. I looked him in the eye and said, "I love your work, Mr. Lane."
He looked at me like I'd just burped garlic breath in his face, assessed the situation, rolled his eyes with resignation, and grudgingly muttered, "Accchh! Oh, okay. Thank you."... grandly living down to his reputation.
The show was marvelous. The chemistry between Tucci and Falco was palpable.
A few months later, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised when it turned out they'd fallen in love doing the play.
My dear Broadway bigwig friend had even invited us to the after party, held in this psycho-posh restaurant/club directly across the street from the theater.
We'd been there 3 minutes when we were introduced to Dr. Melfi, Lorraine Bracco, who, in person, was so gorgeous and down-to-earth friendly, I got light-headed looking at her while she gabbed with my wife.
Bobby Baccala, Janice Soprano, Phillie Leotardo, Silvio Dante, Richie Aprile, Jackie Aprile, Rosalie Aprile, Hesh Rabkin, Tony's cousin, Tony Blundetto, nephew Christuhfuhh Molisanti, Artie and Charmaine Bucco from Vesuvio, Meadow and AJ... all of them were there... all except Livia.
When my wife finally had had enough of my star-struck ogling, she announced that she was leaving.
"Are you gonna stay here and drool, dear?"
We made our way towards the exit of the plush boite where this party was now in full blaze.
Standing in the vestibule, about 15 feet from the front door was Joey Pantoliano, who played the full-blown psycho, Ralphie Cifaretto in Season Three (right?). I really truly don't know what was going on with me that night. Mr. Pantoliano was in the middle of a conversation with someone who was obviously a friend... and without hesitation... to my wife's horror, just like my cockiness with Tony/James at the theater, I just walked up behind Joey P, grabbed his right shoulder, and spun him 180 degrees around (hard!) to face me...
"I'm a fucking asshole for interrupting your conversation and I don't give a fuck! You are a FANTASTIC actor... You live, breath, shit your roles. It's pure pleasure to watch you in any part I've ever seen you do. Sorry to be such a jerk, but you are THE MANG!"
Joey threw his head back, belly-laughed, grabbed both my hands, and shouted...
"My friend, you can fucking interrupt me any fucking time you want with shit like that! Thank you so much, my brother!"
Once we were outside, my wife said to me...
"Jesus, another five minutes in there and you would've had the crap beaten out of you, my dear Mafioso husband."
Okay, time warp waaay back in the very early 1950's...
When my Pops was a-courtin' Ma, one of their favorite ways to spend an evening was to search out quaint little restaurants, preferably of some ethnic persuasion.
Both were sorta artyfarts. Ma was a full-tilt artist, drawing fashion illustrations for newspaper ads for a small woman's clothes company while wrestling with canvases and oils on her own time, and Pops was an actual member of the Communist Party, a career newspaper editor, subverting the masses with proper grammar, punctuation, and unburied leads.
Their frequent feeding forays often took them to Greenwich Village, even then, a funky groovy happening locale in the sprawl of NYC. The north end of L'il Italy was the south end of "The Village". East of 6th Avenue and west of Broadway and south of Washington Square Park, just about every block, especially those that ran north/south, had at least two and three stellar little Italian restaurants.
One early still-cold-out spring night, a year or two before I was born, dear Dad suggested he and mater try a small joint on Thompson, one of those cute north/south streets, that he'd been told was hugely authentic and patronized by real cognoscenti (translation: very in-the-know) New York Italians. So, downtown they went.
When they arrived, sure enough, there wasn't a table available. But, as mother and father stood in the vestibule, (wow, how often does that word come up twice in a story!) the maitre d' assured them that he'd have a table for them within minutes. So, in the cold little vestibule, they stood.
About a minute later, two men crowded in behind them, dressed identically in long gray cashmere coats with black velvet collars, and matching black fedoras. One was tall, young, and elegant, the other, older and coarser.
The young one tapped my father on the shoulder and politely asked, "Yizz been waitin' long?"
My dad replied that no, they'd just gotten there and that the maitre d' seemed to feel that seating would be available very soon. The younger guy said thanks.
Then, behind my father, the older guy, addressing the younger guy, growled in a harsh gravel voice "Whattya? Fratenizing?" in a very demeaning way. Frankly, in a way that my Dad felt demeaning to him, as well as the polite younger inquirer.
My Dad turned to tell the older guy that his friend was allowed to talk to whoever he wanted and that asking a simple question was no cause for such an attitude. But, there was something about the older guy that made Dad think the better of it. He turned back to find the maitre d' beckoning him and his date, my mother, to a table for two in the back of the restaurant.
As they were sitting down, the maitre d' leaned over and whispered to my father...
"You know who that was behind you? Vito Genovese!"
Chances are pretty good that if Dad hadn't changed his mind about giving Old Gravel Throat a piece of his mind, I'd probably have different color eyes, nomesane!
For those of you who aren't up on your Original Five Crime Families of New York lore... Vito Genovese was the most reviled, loathed, and feared of the five bosses among the entire underworld of New York. Why?
Not because he was the smartest or most successful. No, it was because he was the most totally psychotic, unhinged, and violent mob boss in the U.S. of A, period.
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