James Gandolfini, the actor-turned-television icon from his turn as an emotionally tortured gangster on the HBO series "The Sopranos," was remembered by loved ones and colleagues at his funeral Thursday as a generous "teddy bear" who channeled a childlike vulnerability into his role as a brutal mob boss.
Inside the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan, Gandolfini, 51, who died of a heart attack June 19 while vacationing with his family in Rome, was hailed for selflessly extending himself on behalf of his family, loved ones, veterans and an adoring public.
Actors Steve Buscemi, Tony Sirico, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Jerry Adler, John Turturro and Alec Baldwin, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were among the hundreds attending the service in the gothic church.
At the service, led by the Very Rev. James A. Kowalski, eulogists paid tribute to the familiar, friendly actor from New Jersey by pointing out that Gandolfini bore no resemblance to the ruthless mobster he portrayed: Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini was "honest, kind and loving," serving food to the homeless during Mardi Gras after Katrina, helping the victims of Sandy, and sharing sushi with Teamsters, said his widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, in a quavering voice. Though the "beautifully complex" Gandolfini was "extremely private," people mattered to him, and the man "cared about others more than himself," she said.
After paying homage to the actor's teenage son, Michael, who found his father unconscious, and lauding Gandolfini's long, tight hugs, family friend Thomas Richardson invited all the mourners to hug the congregants around them in his memory.
The burly, expressive actor was "the most giving, generous person anyone has ever known," Richardson said.
"Sopranos" creator David Chase shared a lengthy scene he imagined for Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano that would end with a gunless mob boss, without his underlings, hopping on a bus in the Meadowlands while the Joan Osborne song "One of Us" played.
Chase drew chuckles from the hundreds of mourners when he recalled shooting a scene one hot, humid New Jersey summer, when he spied Gandolfini resting in a beach chair while wearing black socks, black shoes and a wet handkerchief on his head.
He told Gandolfini it wasn't a "cool look" but "I was filled with love," Chase said.
Of the Tony Soprano character, Chase asked rhetorically why the short-tempered Tony Soprano was so beloved?
It was, Chase said, because Gandolfini managed to suffuse the role with a boyish, touching vulnerability that did no less than "illuminate the human soul."