Tony Soprano himself, actor James Gandolfini, tragically died of an apparent heart attack while vacationing in Rome on Wednesday. He had planned to attend a film festival in Sicily over the weekend. The festival will now conclude with a tribute to the late actor’s life and work. He left behind an impressive body of work beyond his iconic role in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” even though he was only 51 at the time of his death.
Gandolfini was also a tireless advocate for wounded veterans, working with the Wounded Warrior Project and producing documentaries about veterans of the war in Iraq for HBO. He did an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News about the project, in which he said he was “struck by the silence here in this country about what’s going on over there.”
HBO threw a premiere party for the documentary at the Morgan Library in New York. It was a somewhat subdued affair compared to may of the network’s parties. Men — and at least one woman — in uniform with missing arms and legs were mingling, a little uncomfortably, at a cocktail party in their honor. But they weren’t uncomfortable around Gandolfini. And he wasn’t in any way uncomfortable around them.
Suddenly, one of the veterans, a young man, started to become agitated and began to yell incoherently. The cocktail party guests were shocked and embarrassed. Gandolfini bounded from the other side of the room and hugged him. “You’re alright, you’re alright. We love you,” he said.
Jon Alpert, co director of “Alive Day Memories” and Gandolfini’s follow-up project about post-traumatic stress disorder, “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” credited both Gandolfini’s stage persona and real personality for his success at working with veterans:
“People feel like they know him,” Alpert said in 2010. “First of all, he’s very sincere in his concern. Second, he’s been in their living rooms every Sunday for five years. He portrays a big tough guy who was psychologically wounded by the things he’s had to do and he’s seen. As a result of that, they’re ready to talk. From the lowest ranking service member to the top generals, they opened up very quickly to him.”
“Jim was a wonderful friend. Of mine and of America’s soldiers,” Alpert told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. “He appreciated their sacrifice and service and worked to help them in any way he could.”
Stars and Stripes covered the premiere of “Wartorn” at the Pentagon:
HBO premiered the documentary last night at the Pentagon to a room full of uniforms, including Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. George Casey. Felt like a turning point that the military’s top brass so fully embraced and supported an outsider’s project on a topic they hardly even gave credence to at the start of the current wars.
“Wartorn” flips between veterans of past wars and those of the Iraq and Afghanistan era. It includes footage of battlefield interviews with WWII soldiers who had “shell shock,” Vietnam and WWII veterans talking about the nightmares they still have to this day, and parents of servicemembers who did tours in Iraq and then took their own life.
Col. Charles Engel, who is director of the Army’s Deployment Health Clinical Center and was interviewed in the documentary, said today that although it’s hard for the military to see on screen, the dark film fairly portrays how far the military has to go in handling PTSD.
There is one wrenching scene where a father of a soldier who killed himself reads a doctor’s notes dismissing his son’s symptoms as imaginary and sending him back to the field.
Both documentaries are available from Amazon.com, using the links provided above. Ironically, Gandolfini once told reporters that killing off Tony Soprano with a heart attack would be “kind of lame.” He said he’d prefer something spectacular, like a nuclear bomb: “That would be good. Boom!”
Here’s a man who saw people in need of a helping hand, and used his unique talent to give it. He used the enormous clout he developed as the star of a network-defining show to turn the spotlight on those who gave so much for their country. Wouldn’t it be something if the huge audience that followed Gandolfini’s work on “The Sopranos” dropped by the Wounded Warrior Project to give them a helping hand in his memory? That would be a good way to go.