Gandolfini funeral a Sopranos-style send-off

Purring SUVs with tinted windows (and New Jersey plates) delivered mourners in sunglasses and boxy dark suits to the steps of St John the Divine Cathedral in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. Girlfriends or wives were in narrow black dresses and teetering heels - all reasons already to think you were at a mob funeral.

Some just looked the part. But of course they did. "Look, there's Vito, there's Vito," a lady called out from across the street as one tightly tailored gentleman laboured upwards to the West Door. She had spotted Vito Spatafore, or rather the actor who played him in the HBO TV series, The Sopranos, Joseph Gannascoli.

This was an Italian funeral a New Jersey funeral, but not a mafia one. This was the final farewell to the actor James Gandolfini, not a fan convention for one of the biggest television series there ever was. But as a soloist sang Ave Maria and family members approached to put their lips to the coffin, it was hard to keep television fantasy and grieving reality apart. "Look there's Paulie. There's Tony's sister."

Gandolfini, who died from a heart attack last week in Rome aged just 51, was familiar with the phenomenon. He and Tony Soprano, the gruff yet vulnerable mob boss he played in the series, were just that much intertwined. He had tried to break the link by playing other roles - in God of Carnage on Broadway or as former CIA Director Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty - but he didn't quite succeed.

It was a measure of the respect and the love he earned that his funeral was in the largest cathedral in New York. It drew hundreds, and not just the famous. Renata Latimer, 67, had no direct connection but went because the Sopranos had got her through hip surgery convalescence. The scenes she recalled most fondly were Tony's sessions with his therapist played by Lorraine Bracco. "He was so human," she said.

But the famous were there too. Chris Christie looked like a former cast member but is in fact the Governor of New Jersey. Actor-Director John Turturro was there to pay respects and so were actors Steve Buscemi and Alec Baldwin. And, yes, near the front was Ms Bracco. Of four eulogies one came from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. He offered a theory about what had made Gandolfini so special. "I saw in you a sad boy, amazed and confused," he said looking to his old friend under the cloth-draped coffin. "You were a great actor because of the boy who was inside, it was the child reacting."

His acting coach for his whole career, Susan Aston, recalled one of her last conversations with him when he explained why he had turned down a movie offer that would have filmed this summer. "I didn't want to lose any of that time with Michael and Lilli," he told her. He meant to be on the Jersey Shore right now with his two children, and his wife, Deborah Lin, before it was too late.

- Independent

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