by Steve Adubato, PhD
James Gandolfini, dead at 51. Something just doesn’t seem right about that. There was something about Gandolfini that so many, particularly in New Jersey, could relate to.
But what always struck me about this quintessential “Jersey guy”, who was a product of Rutgers University and studied communications there, was that he communicated in such a powerful and memorable way.
Not everyone has it; in fact, very few people do. It is so easy to call it charisma or charm, but it was something more than that with Gandolfini. I only met him once, but I’ll never forget it. Even though I’ve interviewed many members of “The Sopranos” cast on public television, including Lorraine Bracca, Joe Pantoliano, Vince Curatola (Johnny Sack) and Frank Vincent—all of whom spoke glowingly about Gandolfini—it was in meeting him that I could see that he had that something special. It was something that drew people to him.
It was at a restaurant that was being opened by Joe Piscopo and some business associates in mid-town Manhattan that I met Gandolfini. The place had a Sinatra theme to it, and there were a range of other interesting characters there, many of whom were Italian-American. But when Gandolfini walked in, it was clear that the party had changed. Everything stopped. Everyone’s attention turned to him. He didn’t say a word, but he walked in with confidence and a swagger that was so New Jersey. It was odd to see that in New York. When Piscopo introduced me to Gandolfini, he barely made eye contact. But when he introduced him to my wife, Jennifer, Gandolfini took more of an interest. Without batting an eye, he reached over with his hulking frame, gave her a big hug and a kiss—on the lips. Who does that, except a guy who knows he can?
While I was somewhat thrown off, my wife was thrilled. Then again, I was thinking, what am I going to do about it? It’s James Gandolfini, AKA Tony Soprano. Often, it was hard to separate the two. Communicating on television or on the big screen is a tricky thing. Some people have the ability to connect, but most don’t; while some connect in those media venues, when you meet them in person, you are terribly disappointed. Their personalities seem flat, with their on-screen persona overshadowing who they are in real life.
But with Gandolfini, it seemed one and the same. While he was a terrific and compelling actor, you began to think that so much of being a “Jersey guy” for him was simply who he was. There was no act to put on. Sure, there was a dialect to learn, but that was it. One of the things that seems missing, from corporate executives to political candidates, from broadcasters to middle managers, is that sense of authenticity. A feeling that what you see is really all there is. They are not trying to be anyone or anything else.
Gandolfini was a Jersey guy from Bergen County who was proud of where he came from, and would wear it on his sleeve. He loved Rutgers. His communication with others was often a product of that pride and those Jersey roots. I’m convinced there is a Jersey style of communicating and interacting with others, some of which can sometimes be crass and less than dignified. Sometimes, it doesn’t do justice to the English language. But the best part of “Jersey Communication” is that it is real and honest--what you see is what you get. That was James Gandolfini. No airs, nothing fake, just a guy with a big heart and a lot of confidence and swagger, who had a giant presence both on and off screen—a Jersey communicator who will truly be missed and who died way too young at 51.