Remembering James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini’s star trailer was simple. Positioned right outside Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York, where many scenes for the HBO hit series “The Sopranos” were filmed, there was nothing fancy about it—a small TV, a refrigerator, a couch, some chairs, a table and, for the star, a quiet place away from the daily hubbub of the show.

I had gone there thanks to an introduction from HBO, and was intent on convincing the iconic star of my favorite show to be on the cover of Cigar Aficionado.

We lit up cigars and shared stories. It wasn’t an interview, so he was a bit more relaxed than he usually was in the presence of a journalist. But I wondered if I was getting through to him; the cover was very important to me. Finally, I just asked him bluntly. His response was quick and adamant. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “This show isn’t just about me. It’s about all the guys, everyone who works here. So, I’m not doing it alone. You want to do it. You have to promise me it will include everybody.” In a moment of weakness, because it was clear I wasn’t going to get anything else, I said, “Yes. But how about just all the male stars.” He said okay, but “there are a lot of us.”

The complicated logistics of getting a single shot with nine men in it didn’t hit me until the day I showed up for the photo shoot. We had engaged one of the greatest celebrity photographers working in America at the time, Michael O’Neill, and he was trying hard to make it work. We took the shot, Gandolfini and eight other stars—Steve Schirripa, Michael Imperioli, Federico Castelluccio, John Ventimiglia, Steven Van Zandt, Joe Pantoliano, Tony Sirico, Dominic Chianese and James Gandolfini. But look at the cover picture. We couldn’t even get Gandolfini in the center of the picture; he was always off to one side, ensuring that everyone got the same visual importance.

I still didn’t have a clue how the photograph was going to work as a cover. To get them all on one page would have meant each one’s face was the size of a penny or a dime. Then, it hit me. Wrap the photograph around the front and back covers of the magazine. It remains my favorite Cigar Aficionado cover of all time.

The point is simple; Gandolfini’s insistence on sharing the glory of the show was sincere. He refused to take all the credit, and if you ask  any celebrity journalist out there working today, they will tell the same thing—he almost always refused to do interviews about himself, and only reluctantly would talk about a project that he was promoting. The interview was never about him per se, but about the film, or his costars, or the director or the writers. It wasn’t a put on. That was Gandolfini. And, he held journalists in a pretty high state of disregard; I read where a gossip columnist once printed the name of someone close to him, and he never spoke to her again.

We spoke a few more times over the years. We tried to do a second cover on the show as its final season began; Gandolfini was no more help than he had been the first time. But we went ahead with the cover, highlighting what great television the show had been for its entire run.

Gandolfini also came to one of our charity functions, the Night to Remember, which raises money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. He had a few of his buddies from the show with him. You could just tell that a black tie event with a bunch of businessmen and strangers wasn’t his favorite place to be on earth. But he was there for the charity.

I tried repeatedly over the years following the end of “The Sopranos” to get Gandolfini alone on the cover of the magazine. I believed him to be one of the greatest actors working in the film business, and I believed he deserved to be profiled in the magazine. I loved his role in The Last Castle, where he played a warden of a military prison, and I was mesmerized by his role on Broadway in God of Carnage, which he starred in with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden. He earned a Tony nomination for it. His acting ability was just awesome.

Of course, he was a cigar smoker too, but that wasn’t what drove me—it was him and his acting ability. Unfortunately, the next cover never happened, partly because he chose to ignore the offers. Just recently, less than four months ago, in a conversation with his agent, I got a “well, not right now,” which I took as a small opening that some day he might agree to it.

I entertained the idea of putting him on this cover. But it would have come long after his passing, and we decided there probably wasn’t much that we could add to the historical record that was compiled in the weeks and months after his death. But we wanted to share our pictures of him and the cast, and remind you all about the unique and special qualities of James Gandolfini.

I hope this tribute, and the photographs included here, gives you as many happy memories of the life of James Gandolfini as it did for me.