News of James Gandolfini's death brought back warm memories of when I worked on a movie he was in back in 2003.
The name of the movie was Surviving Christmas - which as the name suggests was a Christmas comedy - and it starred Ben Affleck, who at the time was in the eye of the celebrity storm as a result of his high profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez. Gandolfini was the main co-star in the movie and I was there as Ben Affleck's stand-in - which in terms of status on a Hollywood movie places you somewhere between the ground and a blade of grass (okay a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but you know what I mean).
I had been in Hollywood a few years by then, been on countless movie and TV sets, and seen most of the major stars close up. The days of being excited by Hollywood, of experiencing butterflies in my stomach as I drove over to Warner Bros or Paramount or Disney Studios to work on a movie or TV show were behind me. Now it was drudgery. I recount the experience in my book Dreams That Die.
However one of the few stars still capable of inducing that buzz of excitement I had lost was James Gandolfini. Along with probably the entire western world by this point, I was a huge fan of The Sopranos and especially the character of Tony Soprano whom he had turned into a cultural icon. James Gandolfini's ability to combine vulnerability and physical presence and toughness in one character was a rare talent that few actors in the history of the screen have accomplished. Gandolfini was up there with the likes of Anthony Quinn and Gene Hackman in this respect. He was one of those actors who improved every movie or TV series he was in, who may have been in his share of bad movies but was never bad in them himself.
Surviving Christmas was one of those bad movies, evidenced in the fact it was only in theatres a few weeks before being relegated to DVD. Even so it was an absolute privilege to be able to watch Gandolfini work every day. His instincts and timing as an actor were impeccable, as was his command of inflection and the ability to know where the drama was in any given scene. More importantly, when it comes to the character of the man, was the fact he took the time to get to know the name of everyone on the crew - the so-called little guys that most Hollywood actors blithely ignore or hardly take any notice of as they go about their business over the ten weeks or so of a typical movie shoot.
I remember how he would smoke these huge cigars outside the soundstage or when we were shooting an exterior scene on location somewhere. I also recall how between scenes or set ups, he would sit outside his trailer playing and fiddling around with these big electric model cars and trucks for hours, always with a big smile on his face.
Just before a large crowd scene early one morning in a small town called Orange south of LA - which had been specially turned into the Chicago suburb at Christmas-time where the story was set, complete with street decorations, fake snow, and hundreds of extras - he was pacing up and down puffing on one of his cigars. He seemed completely oblivious to all the activity and people around him as he focused on the scene. Suddenly he let loose with a giant roar, as if declaring that he was ready to shoot, in the process sending a shiver of energy right through the set that succeeded in waking everybody up, exactly as required.
There was also the time when, just as the movie entered its final couple of weeks shooting, he arranged to have every crew member fitted out with a commemorative bomber jacket, which he paid for himself.
However my most vivid memory of the man was the morning he approached me just before heading into the set to start shooting his first scene of the day. First looking around to make sure no one else could hear, he came up close and said, "Could I speak to you for a minute?"
As I followed him over to the side, I don't mind admitting to feeling a little nervous. Even though 6'2" and fairly big myself, Gandolfini dwarved me in size and had hands the size of snow shovels to boot. What's this about? I remember thinking to myself. What have I done?
He found a quiet spot on the soundstage, stopped, turned around, and with a furrowed brow that was pure Tony Soprano said in his broad New Jersey accent, "Did I see you in Ralph's on Beverly and Fairfax last night around eight o'clock?"
Ralph's is a supermarket chain in LA. He was asking if he'd seen me in the supermarket.
I looked at him, shook my head and told him, no, it wasn't me.
"Okay," he said. "I wasn't sure. I just didn't want you to think I was being ignorant cause I didn't say hi." And, with that, he headed back over to the set to start his scene.
James Gandolfini was a Hollywood star and I a mere stand-in - a complete nobody in the scheme of things - yet there he was, just prior to shooting a scene in a movie, concerned that he may have slighted me by failing to say hi in the supermarket the night before and going out of his way to make sure he hadn't. He didn't know me and didn't have to do that.
He was a genuinely decent human being, a class act both on and off screen, which in Hollywood is a rare thing indeed.
May he Rest in Peace.