Gandolfini Revealed: Feeling the Pressure

In the third part of a four-part series, read about how on-screen stresses bled into, and took a toll, on James Gandolfini's personal life.

In the week before James Gandolfini died in June 2013—almost six years after The Sopranos had ended—food writer-turned-Sopranos- chronicler Brett Martin published a story in GQ magazine that described an epic four- day AWOL Jim went on as the crew was trying to shoot a complicated scene for the 2002 season finale. The scene required a helicopter and the rental of the Westchester County Airport. It was a Friday night set, and the crew spent their time switching the schedule to shoot the handful of scenes that didn’t require Tony Soprano. But he never showed up.

Missing a big scene was not unheard of. People on The Sopranos crew had first gotten used to the sounds of farm animals— chickens, horses, that sort of thing, pigs were rare, though— coming out of Jim’s trailer before he did a scene. Animal sounds were part of his warm- up for performing. And everybody knew he could destroy refrigerators and telephone booths, and put his fist through stage- set walls, when he couldn’t remember his lines. He’d been late, or gone missing, before.

“His fits were passive- aggressive,” Martin wrote, “he would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his [Manhattan] apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistical disruptions it had caused—akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime—that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. ‘All of a sudden there’d be a sushi chef at lunch,’ one crew member remembered. ‘Or we’d all get massages.’ It had come to be understood by all involved as part of the price of doing business, the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolfini offered.”

The pressure was intense, of course, but it wasn’t entirely coming from the need to prepare for the next pretend murder or apt malapropism. On February 1, 2001, Gandolfini had left his wife Marcy’s duplex in the West Village. He never went back. A year later, in March 2002, he filed for divorce.

Going through a New York City divorce while starring in the hottest television show in the country is something shy people should avoid. In the same way the press would love the stories of Sopranos actors getting pinched for felonies and minor mischief, they adored the idea of James Gandolfini with marriage troubles. Some papers and TV gossip shows, naturally enough, led their accounts with comparisons of Tony’s marriage to Carmella with the Gandolfinis’ relationship in real life.

For James, it was excruciating. Marcy told friendly outlets that she was mystified by his decision, and wondered darkly about “something bipolar or manic depressive.” Then, in October 2002, The National Enquirer published a story based on a source who claimed to have seen legal papers prepared for the divorce case. The Enquirer wrote that Marcy claimed Gandolfini had entered drug and alcohol rehabilitation in 1998, and that costars like Julia Roberts and Edie Falco had both tried to get him to stop using drugs. It quoted Marcy naming 52 people who were aware of James’s drug use, including everyone from other Sopranos actors to Steve Tyler of Aerosmith.

Such charges are often the stuff of celebrity divorce. Marcy later claimed that she was “annoyed” those charges went public, saying she never intended for that to happen. And of course it is an old tabloid tactic to run negative stories unless the star does an on-the-record interview.

And that’s what happened, after a special PR consultant was hired to guide the star through this ordeal. Gandolfini,  who hated giving interviews, especially about his personal life, sat down with The National Enquirer in October 2002, to admit he’d had a problem with cocaine and alcohol four years earlier.

Drugs were part of the nightclub scene where he’d worked in the 1980s, Gandolfini said, and that was where he’d first encountered them. He insisted that it was all over now, that he’d gone to Alcoholics Anonymous from time to time, and that his problems were in his past, from a period before he was an international star and he’d had a son. The Associated Press ran an item, [saying] Gandolfini admits past drug abuse, on October 17.

When the case went to court, the celebrity media were disappointed. The settlement was amicable, the press was shut out, and Gandolfini has consistently pointed out how famously he and Marcy have gotten on ever since. In December 2002, Gandolfini and Marcy were divorced. She kept their adjoining condos in the West Village, worth an estimated $2 million. Their son, Michael, then three years old, continued to live with her. James bought a condo downtown in nearby Tribeca, the neighborhood where Robert De Niro lived.

And then, of course, art imitated life. The Sopranos being what it was, the 2004 season opened with Tony in the middle of an angry separation from Carmella, which would become one of the main plot lines for the rest of the season.

Writers for The Sopranos, like everyone else on the set, knew what Gandolfini had been through. They gave Tony lines—“I’m old- school. I don’t believe in this separation . . .and divorce,” he screams at Carmella— that didn’t take much imagination to assume echoed the actor’s own feelings. Unlike Jim, however, Tony went straight to coercion, threatening to end Carmella’s nice suburban lifestyle and
personal security. “He’s got a lot of rage,” Gandolfini said.

Gandolfini’s friend Susan Aston told me that Gandolfini usually called writers “vampires,” because they’d listen to you sympathetically, like any friend, and then turn around and use what you’d told them in a scene. It was the Post that made the meanest play on this game of real and false, quoting Marcy saying you could tell Jim wasn’t Tony Soprano because “Tony would never hurt his family.”

NEXT: Fighting about money. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here. Read Part Four here.

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a four-part series excerpted from James Gandolfini by Dan Bischoff. Copyright 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Dan Bischoff covers the arts for the Star-Ledger. He lives in South Orange.

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