By Kevin Williams
Like many Americans and millions of New Jerseyans, I was shocked to hear of James Gandolfini’s sudden passing. He was only fifty-one, which is still young for someone without major health issues. Mr. Gandolfini was vital to the end and an actor who was always working, always in the arena, always challenging himself.While he was best known for his signature role of Anthony Soprano or “Tony Soprano,” Gandolfini had an accomplished career before stardom and after stardom came. For example, he was excellent as Leon Panetta in ZERO DARK THIRTY and as Bear in GET SHORTY. But for me, I became a big fan of his work when I saw his scene-stealing moments as Virgil The Hitman in 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE. Gandolfini would always be considered a “tough guy” character actor and after Tony Soprano launched him like a rocket… he’d have to work doubly hard in each new role to get the audience to leave “Tony” behind. It should also be noted and James Gandolfini should be commended for his work with returning Veterans with PTSD and for producing two films on our Veterans, ALIVE DAY MEMORIES: HOME FROM IRAQ and WARTORN: 1861-2010.
As a life-long New Jerseyan, I share the pride many have for the success of THE SOPRANOS and what it wrought for our Garden State. For once, we were a cut above the “City That Never Sleeps” and we were no longer the butt of all the jokes. THE SOPRANOS were world-wide and James Gandolfini’s “Tony Soprano” made that happen for six seasons. Just how world-wide?
Well, let me tell you a story. In the fall of 2002, my wife and I went to Northern Ireland after my Mom passed away in order to find the house her father/my grandfather grew up in before he came to America. After landing at Dublin Airport, we presented our U.S. passports and New Jersey driver’s licenses the young Irish lads manning the rental car booth… and were immediately inquisitioned about the #1 Show in Ireland, THE SOPRANOS. Who knew that they got HBO on the Emerald Isle? Turned out that they were two weeks behind us SOPRANO-loving Yanks, so we couldn’t tell them about Joey Pantoliano’s character getting killed or any more recent plot lines. Little did we know that meeting these two young Irish lads was just a harbinger of something to come.
As our mission was to “visit the North,” which most Americans do not do as they usually only visit the Republic of Ireland, we started in Belfast which is the capital of the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland. Having grown up with the worst of “The Troubles” being covered on CNN, PBS, ABC, etc. we didn’t know what to expect. But, we found a beautiful city and one which we recommend to everyone who loves to travel. And we found adventure. Plenty of it.
Our first day would begin with a “Black-Taxi Tour” of Belfast, whereby tourists take specific taxis in which the drivers give you a tour of the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods while explaining the local history of “The Troubles.” Needless to say, you end up with a greater appreciation of America and how we share such a great bond without such conflict in our own country. You also end up being glad for the chance to go to a neighborhood pub like the one recommended to us by some New Jersey-based Irish Ex-Pats… The Celtic Pub on Falls Road. Before I tell you the rest of this story – should you ever visit Belfast or any part of Northern Ireland, if you are a Yank… you’ll be treated like gold, trust me.
We entered The Celtic Pub just as a late November gale started and a terrible downpour began. Obviously, we would be here for a while. This is where James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano come into the picture. Being an American of Irish descent, I knew how to properly order a Guinness while in Ireland. My wife and I had a great first round at our table, so I went to the bar and ordered a second round. As I sat down to wait for the Guinnesses to arrive, I noticed that the rest of the bar patrons were deep in their own conversations and no one was giving us Yanks a look. Great, we are not the “Ugly Americans.” Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed four tall, large, older blokes giving us the once over and one of them pointing in my direction. Uh-oh, this is not good. I reminded myself that we were Catholics, from America, in a Catholic neighborhood pub in West Belfast and we hadn’t spoken anything about politics or rugby up until now. We should be okay, unless we were dressed funny or something.
Our second round of Guinnnesses arrived and as my wife and I were about to take our first sip… one of the tall, large, older blokes ambles over towards us. He definitely looked he saw (or did) some “stuff” back in the day and I started to get worried. I hadn’t unknowingly used bad bar-room etiquette since one college night in Boston back in the 80s. The big man stops in front of us, taps our table and says, “Me and my friends over there heard you talking.” Both my wife and I put our pint glasses down and nervously looked at our new bar-mate. Looking at me, he follows up with “Where are you from?” Calculating that we were the only non-West Belfast residents in the pub, I meekly uttered, “Trenton… New Jersey?” The big man starts laughing heartily and waves his even bigger, taller mates to come over and yells “I told you they were from New Jersey!” His three friends hop off their bar stools and come over to our table with the biggest smiles on their faces. We might make it out of this yet, I thought.
The biggest guy in the group (about 6’ 6”) leans in and proudly tells us that their favorite show is… THE SOPRANOS. Most importantly, he tells us, “that Tony Soprano… he’s my kind of fella.” The nervous feelings rushed right back as I got the feeling that a real-life Tony and this guy could talk a lot of shop together. My fears were quickly abated when the gentleman then told me that, “I’ll buy you and your bride a pint. If you just say the words, “I want to whack that guy!” So I, with my best “Jersey” accent, complied and bada-bing… these older Irish lads were laughing hysterically and two more Guinnesses showed up. They had never met anyone from New Jersey before and as they were fans of Tony and THE SOPRANOS, we made their Saturday night. They kept coming up with more “Jersey” requests. They even asked if there actually were guys like Paulie Walnuts in New Jersey (for the record, yes!) We ended up having quite the conversation about Tony, THE SOPRANOS and New Jersey with four nice men who probably never left Northern Ireland or went past the Republic in the south.
Why is this important enough for me to write about and hopefully, for you to read about? Because as this story shows, the power of American Media and the cultural message it delivers about our country is something more far-reaching than we realize. Sometimes, one person on a television set can connect with people more than any political leader can. James Gandolfini, a guy from Westwood, New Jersey and a graduate of his home-state’s Rutgers University never forgot his roots and lived/played what he was… a talented man from New Jersey. He was very-grounded and this humility was a source for much of his success. It’s too bad that more of our politicians aren’t the same way. If they were more like the James Gandolfini’s of the world, we’d probably have a more trust-worthy and less cynical political system. These types of character traits may be polar opposite from the world that Tony Soprano lived in on HBO, but it is the system which many of us are striving for today.
James Gandolfini… you brought the World to New Jersey and America.
Tony Soprano… you brought “old-school” New Jersey and America to the World.
May you both Rest In Peace.