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BY WICKHAM BOYLE | Yes, New Jersey is where actor and icon James Gandolfini was born and the state he made infamous in his long run as Tony Soprano in the eponymous HBO series. But Tribeca was where Gandolfini, Jimmy, to everyone he met, lived and thrived.
I first met Jimmy around 2001 when Tribeca was less chic; less densely populated with strollers and their toddler parents. Many theater, movie and art types lived down here and we all seemed to nod and acknowledge that we were toiling in similar fields. Even if a hit show on HBO was not the same slog as running the experimental theater La MaMa, we knew we were often in the same leaky boat.
After meeting Jimmy with Michael Imperioli, another Tribeca native and Soprano bigwig, Gandolfini was very sweet to me. His big bear demeanor really belied the fierce, almost bi-polar character he portrayed for years on “The Sopranos.” In person, Gandolfini was sweet, and downright humble. It seemed as if he adjusted his height and his bulk and his big voice to be a person that all of us could be very friendly with.
I saw him play chase in the parks with kids, cheer at Little League games, and certainly I saw him eat his share of great food at Bubby’s. I spied him with his first wife and his son walking the streets of Downtown and savoring the great grub joints and the fancy upscale bistros. And then of late, I saw him often with his infant daughter, second wife and their dog.
He seemed content the last time we chatted on the corner of North Moore St. and Hudson. Gandolfini was window shopping in the Brown Harris Stevens real-estate office on the corner where an array of pricey lofts sparkled in photographs.
“Hey Jimmy, I thought you already had a place down here. So what’s up?”
“Always looking, Wick, always lookin’.”
Of course, the life of an actor in such hit movies as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lonely Hearts” or voicing characters in “Where the Wild Things Are” meant that Gandolfini spent much of his time in Hollywood, but neighborhood folks knew him as the man who asked about their kids, or inquired “How you doin’” even when you were trying to give him space.
Gandolfini was beloved by doormen, waitresses and his neighbors, but he could be prickly with the paparazzi when they pursued him and his wife Deborah, whom he married in 2008, and their infant daughter Liliana, now just eight months old. There is a well known picture of Gandolfini at the Tribeca Grill calmly sitting enjoying a glass of wine and giving the finger to someone he’d call an “idgit” for snapping away at him and disturbing his solitude. But to the folks in his circle, and really that meant all of us living in Tribeca, he was the most generous and friendly fella.
Gandolfini was known for his parties featuring massive arrays of Italian dishes and he always invited the doormen up for a champagne toast on New Years Eve. This is the real Jimmy Gandolfini and the man who we espied in his great acting range.
He was cast in the Broadway hit “God of Carnage” in 2009 and was nominated for a Tony Award, an amusing name for a man who made the name Tony a household moniker. Tackling a Broadway show as one of only four in a cast required great concentration and massive skill. Very few movie actors who are known for their character portrayals make the transition to Broadway as it requires the ability to recreate a character, faithfully, eight times a week and to be an artful part of a team.
On the night I saw “God of Carnage”, I ran into Jimmy outside the theater. Of course I had my trusty three-speed bike. He joked and asked if I would be riding him back Downtown. I demurred, but laughed myself silly at the notion of “the big man” astride my rickety bike most probably bellowing greetings to everyone as we rode home down Seventh Ave.