NEW YORK -- They had been here so many times before, in funeral clothes, looking solemn, huddling close together. But that was fiction. This was real, and this was without the man who always stood at the center of those scripted gatherings, casting a giant shadow upon them.

This was "The Sopranos" cast and crew, and friends and family, coming together one more time to say goodbye to James Gandolfini.

Everywhere one looked in the front of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, one could see echoes of the life of Tony Soprano — and, therefore, the life of the complicated but beloved man who played him. There was his wife Carmela — or, rather, Edie Falco. There were all the memorable characters from the series, and the grieving actors who had played them: Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Tony Sirico among them. There were actors whose characters had died onscreen at the hands of Tony, like Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi. There was the man who almost was Tony Soprano, actor Michael Rispoli, who was the runner-up to Gandolfini for the landmark role. There were former guest stars like Julianna Margulies, movie co-stars like Steve Carell, Alec Baldwin, Broadway co-stars Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, members of the news media (including Brian Williams and Dick Cavett).

And of course, there were so many members of Gandolfini's family, including his wife Deborah, son Michael and baby daughter Liliana. Whether they grew up with him, worked with him or loved him, they were here to say goodbye to a man eulogized by his friend Thomas Richardson as someone where "as immense as his talent was, he was an even better person."

Deborah Lin Gandolfini spoke first, and most briefly, noting that her husband was "extremely private" and would feel strange about a funeral being attended by 1500+ people. "I love you, Jim, and I always will."

Richardson recalled visiting a magnificent basilica in Rome with Gandolfini, and added, "Saying it was a church was like saying Jim was an actor." Like many of the other speakers, he talked of his friend's struggles to contain his inner demons, but also of his incredible generosity, not only to loved ones but to strangers and charity.

Gandolfini's old friend Susan Aston, whom he worked with as a young actor and who in turn worked with him as his dialogue coach on "The Sopranos," said that everyone knows of his brilliant work on screen, "But what you might not know is that he strove equally for another thing. In a small home office that he referred to as 'the cave,' where he and I worked late nights on the next day's scenes, this other thing he strove for was to be able to accept himself on the occasions when he fell short of his intentions."

Finally, it was the turn of "Sopranos" creator David Chase, who said he had been asked to speak on behalf of everyone who had worked with Gandolfini on the series. His remarks were presented in the form of a present-tense letter to his co-worker, friend and "brother" because, as he said, "I tried to write a traditional eulogy, but it came out like bad TV." He admitted he was nervous, and made a joking reference to the time Gandolfini disappeared from the set for four days, only to turn up in a Brooklyn beauty parlor, calling the production for a ride home. He notes that Gandolfini's own public speeches were often improvised and didn't make sense, but "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."

He told a story of a scene where Tony was supposed to angrily close a refrigerator door upon getting some bad news. Gandoflini slammed the door shut with such fury that it swung back open again, then kept slamming it until it wouldn't close at all.

"And I remember you saying," Chase said, "'Ah, this role, this role, the places it takes me to, the things I have to do, it's so dark.' And I remember telling you, 'Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? Did 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 fridge.'"

He recalled Gandolfini's own inner struggles, including a time the two met on the banks of the Hudson River, where Gandolfini told him, "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," Chase said to his late friend, "because you are such a man. You're a man in many ways many males, including myself, wish they could be a man."

He also suggested that Gandolfini, and Tony Soprano, were a mix of man and boy — that Gandolfini reacted to the world in a "childish" way. "And by that, I mean they were pre-school, they were pre-manners, they were pre-intellect. They were just simple emotions, straight and pure. And I think your talent is that you can take in the immensity of humankind and the universe, and shine it out to the rest of us like a huge bright light. And I believe that only a pure soul, like a child, can do that really well. And that was you."

He remembered first feeling a bond with Gandolfini during a break from filming in an early episode, when he spotted his star trying to beat the brutal New Jersey summer heat and humidity by rolling up his slacks, placing a wet handkerchief on his head and lounging in an aluminum chair — an image Chase knew well from his Italian uncles and his grandfather, who were, like Gandolfini's father, laborers who worked with stone and concrete.

"It made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that," he said. "When I said before 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 that, though I'm older than you, and always felt, that we are brothers. And it was really based on that day. I was filled with so much love for everything we were doing and about to embark on."

He recalled Gandolfini's charitable work with the Wounded Warrior Project, and made sure to note — as Gandolfini always preferred the spotlight turning on others — that Sirico was as much a part of that as Gandolfini himself. And he noted that Gandolfini's efforts to better himself were so often reflected in the iconic role he played.

"So Tony Soprano never changed, people say," Chase said. "He got darker. I don't know how they can misunderstand that. 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 at cost to you and others, but you tried. And I'm thinking about the fact of 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 would snap. And that's of course what everybody read about, was the snapping."

Finally, his thoughts turned to an idea for a "Sopranos" episode that never made it out of the writers room, which would have ended with Tony stuck in the Meadowlands, without his wallet, phone or car keys, and just enough change in his pocket to pay for bus fare. Tony would get on the bus and — like all "Sopranos" episodes — a rock song would begin playing: Joan Osborne's "One of Us," including the lyrics:

    What if God was one of us?
    Just a slob like one of us?
    Just a stranger on the bus
    trying to make his way home.

Now, though, Chase explained, recent real-life events meant he would want to let the song continue, so we could also hear the next lines:

    Just trying to make his way home
    Like a holy rollin' stone
    Back up to Heaven all alone
    Nobody callin' on the phone
    'Cept for the Pope, maybe, in Rome.

"Love, David," Chase concluded. (The full transcript of his remarks is on the next page.)

And with that, a few words from the minister and a few more hymns and songs from the choir, it was over. Gandolfini was no longer present-tense, but simply gone much sooner than anyone in the church was ready for him to go.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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