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

(Here's my transcript of David Chase's eulogy to James Gandolfini.)

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 will understand this. I'd like to run away and 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's work part of your life. Others will have spoken beautifully and magnificently about the other beautiful and magnificent parts of you: father, brother, friend. I guess what I was told is I'm also supposed to speak for your castmates whom you loved, for your crew that you loved so much, for the people at HBO, and Journey. I hope I can speak for all of them today and for you.

I asked around, and experts told me to start with a joke and a funny anecdote. "Ha ha ha." But as you yourself so often said, I'm not feelin' it. I'm too sad and full of despair. I'm writing to you partly because I would like to have had your advice. Because I remember how you did speeches. I saw you do a lot of them at awards shows and stuff, and invariably you would scratch two or three thoughts on a sheet of paper and put it in your pocket, and then not really refer to it. And consequently, a lot of your speeches didn't make sense. I think that could happen in here, 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, so I'll give the funny opening a try. I hope that it's funny; it is to me and it is to you.

And that is, one day toward the end of the show — maybe season 4 or season 5 — we were on the set shooting a scene with Stevie Van Zandt, and I think the set-up was that Tony had received news of the death of someone, and it was inconvenient for him. And it said, "Tony opens the refrigerator door, closes it and he starts to speak." And 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 so then you slammed it again, then it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator.

And the funny part for me is I remember Steven Van Zandt — because the cameras are going, we have to play this whole scene with a refrigerator door opening — I remember Steven Van Zandt standing there with his lip out, trying to figure out, "Well, what should I do? First, as Silvio, because he just ruined my refrigerator. And also as Steven the actor, because we're now going to play a scene with the refrigerator door open; people don't do that." And I remember him going over there and trying to tinker with the door and fix it, and it didn't work. And so we finally had to call cut, and we had to fix the refrigerator door, and it never really worked, because the gaffer tape showed on 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 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."

Another memory of you that comes to mind is from very early on — might have been the pilot, I don't know. We were shooting in that really hot and humid summer New Jersey heat. And I looked over, and you were sitting in an aluminum beach chair, with your slacks rolled up to your knees, in black socks and black shoes, and a wet handkerchief on your head. And I remember looking over there and going, "Well, that's really not a cool look." But I was filled with love, and I knew then that I was in the right place. I said, "Wow, I haven't seen that done since my father used to do it, and my Italian uncles use to do it, and my Italian grandfather used to do it." And they were laborers in the same hot sun in New Jersey. They were stone masons, and your father worked with concrete. I don't know what it is with Italians and cement. And I was so proud of our heritage — it made me so proud of our heritage to see you do that.

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.

I also feel you're my brother in that we have different tastes, but there are things we both love, which was 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 me of something that happened between us one time. Because these guys were such men — your father and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith about yourself and acting, a lot of things, were very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River, and you told me, you said, "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 many 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 very boyish. And about the age when 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. And that was why, I think, you were a great actor: because of that boy who was inside. He was a child reacting. Of course you were intelligent, but it was a child reacting, and your reactions were often childish. 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.

Now to talk about a third guy between us, there was you and me and this third guy. People always say, "Tony Soprano. Why did we love him so much when he was such a prick?" And my theory was, they saw the 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 was just one example of this. And I'm going to say something because I know that you'd want me to say it in public: that no one should forget Tony Sirico's efforts with you in this. He was there with you all the way, and in fact you said to me just recently, "It's more Tony than me." And I know you, and I know you would 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. 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.

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, everybody knows 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 Howling Wolf and a bunch of them. So if this was an episode, it would end with a song. And the song, as far as I'm concerned, would be Joan Osborne's "(What If God Was) One Of Us?" And the set-up for this — we never did this, and you never even heard this — is that Tony was somehow lost in the Meadowlands. He didn't have his car, and his wallet, and his car keys. I forget how he got there — there was some kind of a scrape — but he had nothing in his pocket but some change. He didn't have his guys with him, he didn't have his gun. And so mob boss Tony Soprano had to be one of the working stiffs, getting in line for the bus. And the way we were going to film it, he was going to get on the bus, and the lyric that would've one over that would've been — and we don't have Joan Osborne to sing it:

    If God had a face
    what would it look like?
    And would you want to see
    if seeing meant you had 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, and it was

    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.

And that would've been playing over your face, Jimmy. But then — and this is where it gets kind of strange — now I would have to update, because of the events of the last week. And I would let the song play further, and the lyrics would be

    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