David Chase Tells Us Why Even Writers Have to Love Actors

Funeral For Actor James Gandolfini
Uh, no offense, David, but when did you turn into the godfather?

David Chase’s Eulogy at James Gandolfino’s Funeral

Dear Jimmy,

Your family asked me to speak at your service and I am so honored and touched.

I’m also really scared and I say that because you of all people understand this, “I would like to run away and then call in four days from now from the beauty parlor.

I want to do a good job because I love you and because you always did a good job. I think the deal is I’m supposed to speak about the actor, artist, work part of your life. Others will have spoken beautifully and magnificently about the other beautiful and magnificent parts of you, the father, brother, friend. I guess what I was told was that I’m supposed to speak for your castmates whom you loved, your crew that you loved so much, for the people at HBO. … I hope I can speak for all of them and give credit to them and to you.

Experts told me to start with a joke or cite a funny anecdote. “Ha-ha-ha.” But as you yourself so often said, “I’m not feeling it.” I’m too sad and full of despair. I’m writing to you because I’d partly like to have your advice because I remember how you did speeches. I saw you do a lot of them at award shows and stuff and invariably I think you used to express the thoughts on a sheet of paper and put it in your pocket and then not really refer to them. And consequentially, many of your speeches didn’t make sense.

I think that could happen except in your case it didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense because the feeling was real, the feeling was real, the feeling was real. I can’t say that enough.

I tried to write a traditional eulogy, but it came out like bad TV. So I’m writing you this letter and now I’m reading that letter in front of you. But it is being done to and for an audience that will give the funny opening a try. I hope it is funny. It is to me and I know it is to you.

One day toward the end of the show — season four or five — we were on the set shooting a scene and it was you and Stevie Van Zandt. I think the setup was that Tony had received news of the death of someone and it was inconvenient for him. It said “Tony opens the door angrily and closes it and starts to speak.”

The cameras rolled and you opened the refrigerator door and you slammed it really hard. You slammed it hard enough that it came open again and you slammed it again and it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator. The funny part for me was, I remember Steven Van Zandt – cause the cameras are now going and we have to play this whole five-minute scene with the refrigerator door open. And I remember Steven Van Zandt just standing there with his lip out and trying to figure out, “Well, what should I do first as Silvio? Cause he just broke my refrigerator.” And then as Steven the actor cause we’re about to play a scene with a refrigerator door open — people don’t do that. And I remember him going over, trying to tinker with the door and fix it, and it didn’t work.

We finally had to call cut and we tried to fix the refrigerator door and it never really worked because then the gaffer tape showed inside the refrigerator and it was a problem all day long. And I remember you saying: “Ah, this role, this role. The places it takes me too, the things that I have to do, it’s so dark.” And I remember telling you, “Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? Does it say anywhere in the script, ‘Tony destroys a refrigerator?’ It says, ‘Tony angrily shuts the refrigerator door.’ That’s what it says. You destroyed the refrigerator.”

Another image of you that comes to mind is very early on, we were shooting in that really hot summer in humid New Jersey, and I looked over and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair with your slacks rolled up to your knees, and black socks and black shoes, and a damp, wet handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going, “Well, that’s really not a cool look.” Then I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place because I said, Wow, I haven’t seen that done since my father used to do it and my Italian uncles used to do it and my Italian grandfather used to do it. And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey — and they were stone masons, and your father, I know, worked with concrete. I don’t know what is with Italians and cement. I was so proud.

It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that, and when I say that you were my brother, this has a lot to do with that. Italian-American. Italian worker. Builder. That Jersey thing, whatever that means. The same social class. I really feel, though that I’m older than you, I always felt that we were brothers — and partly based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything that we were doing and what we were about to embark on. I also feel you’re my brother because of the things we both loved. Family. Work. People in all their imperfection. Food. Alcohol. Talking. Rage. And a desire to bring the whole structure crashing down. We amused each other.

The image of my uncles and father reminded of something that happened between us one time because these guys were such men – that was the point of it – your father and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith about yourself and acting and a lot of things and were very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River and you told me, “You know what I want to be? I want to be a man, that’s all. I want to be a man.”

Now this is so odd because you are such a man. You’re a man in ways many males including myself wish they could be a man. The paradox about you as a man is that I always felt personally that with you I was seeing a young boy, a boy about Michael’s age right now. Cause you were ever boyish. At about that age where humankind and life on the planet are really opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their beautiful and horrible glory, and I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy amazed and confused and loving and amazed by all that, and that was all in your eyes. That was why I think you are a great actor. It’s because of that boy that was inside; it was a child reacting. Of course, you were intelligent, but it was a child reacting, and your reactions were often childish. By that I mean they were pre-school and they were pre-manners, they were pre-intellect; they were just simple emotions, straight and pure. And I think that your talent is you can take in the immensity of human kind and the universe and shine it back out to the rest of us like a huge light; and I believe that only a pure soul, like a child, can do that really well. And that was you.

Now to talk about a third guy between us, there was you, me and this third guy. People always say, “Tony Soprano – why do we love him so much when he’s such a prick?” My theory was they saw a little boy. They felt and they loved the little boy and they sensed his love and hurt and you brought all of that to it. You were a good boy. Your work with the Wounded Warriors is just one example of this. And I’m going to say something because I know you’d want me to say it – that no one should forget TonySirico’s efforts with you in this. He was there with you all the way, and in fact you said to me just recently, “You know it was more Tony than me.” And I know you and I know you’d want me to turn the spotlight on him or you wouldn’t be satisfied, so I’ve done that.

So Tony Soprano never changed, people say. He got darker, and he tried and he tried and he tried. And you tried and you tried, more than most of us and harder than most of us, and sometimes you tried too hard – that refrigerator is one example. Sometimes your efforts were a cost to you and to others, but you tried, and I’m thinking about the fact that – how nice you were to strangers on the street, fans, photographers. You would be patient, loving and personal, and then finally you would just do too much and then you’d snap and that’s of course what everybody read about, was the snapping.

I was asked to talk about the work part. And so I’ll talk about the show we used to do and how we used to do it. You know that we always ended an episode with a song. That was kind of like me and the writers letting the real geniuses do the heavy lifting – Bruce and Mick and Keith and Howlin’ Wolf. So if this was an episode we’d end with a song, the song, as far as I’m concerned, would be Joan Osborne’s‘”What If God Was One of Us?”

The setup for this – we never did this and you never heard this – was that Tony was somehow lost in the Meadowlands and he didn’t have his car and his wallet and his car keys. I forget how we got there, there was some kind of a scrape – but he had nothing in his pockets but some change. He didn’t have his guys there; he didn’t have his gun. So mob boss Tony Soprano is just one of the working stiffs getting in line for the bus. And the way we were going to film it he was gonna get on the bus and the lyric that would’ve gone on with that would’ve been – and we don’t have Joan Osborne here to sing it – “If God had a face, what would it look like? And would you want to see if seeing meant that you would have to believe? And yeah, yeah. God is great. Yeah, yeah. God is good. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

So Tony would get on the bus and he would sit there, and the bus would pull out in this big billow of diesel smoke, and then the key lyric would come on: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home?” And that would’ve been playing over your face, Jimmy.

But then – this is where it gets strange – now I would have to update because of the events of last week, and I would let the song play further and let the lyrics be: “Just tryin’ to make his way home, like a holy rolling stone, back up to heaven all alone, nobody callin’ on the phone, ‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome.”

Love, David