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Memories of Gandolfini and the kiss

By Alan Pergament

Tony Soprano kissed me once.

It was one of the highlights of my initial 28-year run as a TV critic for this newspaper.

When I said goodbye to readers on May 4, 2010 after taking a buyout, being playfully kissed by Tony (James Gandolfini) at the screening of the final season premiere of "The Sopranos" was at the top of my highlight list.

The Kiss came to mind Wednesday night when I heard about Gandolfini’s death at the age of 51 from an apparent heart attack in Italy while on a celebratory vacation with his teenage son.

It was actually the fourth thing to come to mind.

Forgive me, but my first thought was about how fortunate I am to be alive after having a heart attack a year ago and being told later by doctors that most people don't make it to the hospital after what happened to me.

My second thought was about the death of Buffalo native Tim Russert, who died too young at the age of 58 after a heart attack. (The circumstances of Russert and Gandolfini’s deaths were eerily similar. Russert died after returning from a family trip to Italy to celebrate his son Luke’s college graduation.)

My third thought was to ask how long it would be before the media focused on Gandolfini’s past drug and alcohol issues. (The answer was one day. It started Thursday).

Then my thoughts turned to the more pleasant memory of being kissed by Gandolfini.

Tony soprano
James Gandolfini
Here's an edited version of what I wrote about The Kiss at the invitation-only April, 2007 premiere:

It wasn't easy getting an audience with Tony Soprano at Tuesday's mobbed screening of the first two episodes of the final season of HBO's "The "Sopranos."

But there was James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano, chowing down at a packed party afterward in a restaurant adjacent to the Rockefeller Center skating rink. After seeing him constantly being interrupted by friends and still appearing to be in a good mood, I introduced myself and asked the burly Gandolfini if he minded being asked one question. He looked reluctant but listened patiently as I asked him if he was satisfied with how the series was ending.

Gandolfini gave that Cheshire-cat smile, leaned down as if to whisper something in my ear ... and then gently kissed the side of my face.

It was a Tony Soprano moment. He might as well have been dealing with one of his gang. Gandolfini never said a word, and he turned away. It was reminiscent of those many uncertain moments over seven seasons on "The Sopranos" in which mob characters like Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) and Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) had to interpret where they stood with Tony.

It may take weeks to discover if Gandolfini's kiss was intended to explain his satisfaction, or was a kiss of death. But judging by the reaction of a celebrity-studded, invitation-only crowd of about 2,500 at the Radio City Music Hall premiere of the first two episodes, the final season with the Jersey boys will be one to love and savor.”

Gandolfini’s kiss really was more valuable than a quote of a thousand words. From his appearances at several HBO press conferences I attended for the series over the years, you could tell this likable star was a man of few words.

He usually let “Sopranos” creator David Chase do the talking. On some occasions, I didn’t get one quote from Gandolfini. The best quote probably came in a 2002 press conference in which he described the surprising popularity of a character that killed people, repeatedly cheated on his wife and did other unspeakable things. It was as good an explanation as any I've read since he made it.

"Tony's appeal is just like Ralph Kramden's appeal (in 'The Honeymooners'),” Gandolfini told critics. "It's like this moron is trying to do the best he can, and he just keeps screwing up. Although I think that is changing a little bit . . . In his mind, he's trying to do what makes sense to him. And that kind of allows him leeway in people's eyes."

The death of the beloved Gandolfini led to some heartwarming eulogies. My favorite was the extensive one that NBC’s Brian Williams did about Gandolfini on Thursday night’s “NBC Nightly News.” Near the end, Williams quoted a "Sopranos" cast member as saying "at least he died in Italy."

Gandolfini probably would laugh at the numerous suggestions made by several national critics that he changed television and give all the credit to Chase and the series’ writers. That was a constant theme in his news conferences. He was uncomfortable taking credit.

In 2004, the actor said during a news conference I attended in Los Angeles that he was so blown away by reading a scene between two characters that he said to himself, "How smart is that?" "I think (the secret) is great writing," said Gandolfini. "Everything goes from there."

In July 1999 – only six months after the series premiered -- Gandolfini was at the Television Critics Association Awards with the rest of the cast being honored. 

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote about his uncomfortable appearance 14 years ago: James Gandolfini was in the middle of a friendly mob of about 15 reporters, looking about as comfortable as a real-life member of the Mafia who was facing an FBI subpoena.

He had already escaped once, asking 'Where's the bar?'' as a dodge. But this mob was as persistent as the FBI, too, and eventually cornered him again.

Once he was cornered, it was only natural for yours truly to ask him if he was more afraid of the media than the mob.

"Actually I am," "said Gandolfini. "You can do more damage."

It was a good line, even if the setting belied its accuracy. The shy Gandolfini had to deal with the media only because he was going to accept an award for outstanding individual achievement in drama from the Television Critics Association.

No one seems more surprised by the show's success than Gandolfini, a burly man who never expected to get the lead as New Jersey mobster and family man Tony Soprano, either.

When I asked how he was cast, Gandolfini said: "I read the thing, really thought it was great. I didn't think at all I'd get it. I thought they'd give it to someone a little more suave. Like you see these dons are usually. I'm not like that at all."

"I was very surprised I got it," he added. "I met David Chase and auditioned a bunch of times and they decided to take a shot. Plus I was kinda cheap."

"I knew it was smart, smart writing but when I first started I thought, 'who is going to watch all these losers from Jersey really?'"

He was pleased by all the Emmy nominations the show received.

"I'm very happy that it is Edie (Falco, who plays Tony's wife) Lorraine (Bracco, who plays his therapist) and Nancy Marchand (the Buffalo native who plays his demented mother) and it's spread around the writers. Especially the writers. They are the reason we are here because the writing is so good."

After a few minutes, he seemed slightly more comfortable, displaying a dry wit despite his brief answers. Does he feel overwhelmed by the show's instant success?

"I have no problems," said Gandolfini. "People in New York are very cool. I've been in L.A. an hour so I don't know yet."

He wouldn’t reveal anything about the second season scripts. "I can't say anything, David will kill me. I''m the passenger on the train. I don't want to know too far ahead. This will sound a little pompous but in life you don't know what is going to happen so why think about what is going to happen down the road? Let it come as the scripts come."

Is it scary to be on smash hit? "I'm sure we'll screw it up," he cracked. "What's the worst that can happen? Screw it up. It is not brain surgery, you do the best you can."

Does he feel dealing with the media is just a necessary evil?

"It is very nice, very nice. I think the character is just a lot more interesting than me. The character, the work and David are a lot more interesting. I just say the words that he gives me."

And what is his favorite thing about Tony?

"His Russian mistress," cracked Gandolfini.

With that, he ended the brief interview, grabbed his award and waited for the 90-minute ordeal to end. When "The Sopranos" was given the last award for program of the year, Chase, Falco, Bracco, Michael Imperioli and Dominic Chianese all went up to say a few words. Gandolfini stayed in his seat.

And as soon as the awards program ended, he said to a friend, 'Are you leaving now? Can I go with you?'"

And then the shy star was gone, one step ahead of the mob.”

I remember that Gandolfini badly wanted to bolt but he stayed until the end that day. But Wednesday, he left the earth much, much too soon. As he said 14 years ago, in life you don't know what is going to happen.



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About Talkin' TV

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament has continued to blog about television topics since retiring in 2010 as The News' television writer after 28 years on the beat. From local on-air personalities to ratings to the latest on network and cable programming, he keeps you informed.

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