It’s a rhetorical question to ask when evaluating fame and influence: When all the men get together, who is “the man?”
James Gandolfini was the man. In whatever room he entered, he was the guy.
“He was a great actor, but a better guy,” Steve Schirripa, Gandolfini’s friend and co-star in the groundbreaking HBO series “The Sopranos” said during a phone conversation today. “I am in shock. It’s terrible. He was like a brother. I am very, very sad.”
Gandolfini died Wednesday of what doctors believe was a heart attack while on vacation in Rome. He was 51.
The former entertainment director at the Riviera, Schirripa now lives in New York. He learned of Gandolfini’s death when his business manager, Roger Haber, called while Schirripa was watching the Yankees-Dodgers game at Yankee Stadium. Haber was also Gandolfini’s manager.
“This was about an hour after it happened,” Schirripa said. “I got up and left. I was just in shock. I still am.”
Schirripa related Gandolfini’s generosity, which was substantial.
“After the fourth season of ‘The Sopranos,’ he gave us all $33,333,” he said. “He just wanted to do it.” When asked why the numbers were all 3s, Schirripa said, “I didn’t ask him why. But I did thank him. That’s like giving someone a new car, and he did it for 16 of us.”
Gandolfini also appeared in Schirripa’s movie, “Nicky Deuce.” The premiere of that film on May 20 ago marked the last time the two spent time together.
“I asked him to be in the movie, and he didn’t have to do it but he did it as a favor,” Schirripa said. “He came to the premiere in L.A. and was in a really good mood, happy, at peace. We had a drink afterward and that was the last time I saw him.
Gandolfini was a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, making appearances with cast members at the Las Vegas Hilton, Paris Las Vegas and Golden Nugget. Las Vegas photographer Denise Truscello took a memorable portrait of the cast at the Golden Nugget in 2004. Schirripa also appeared with Gandolfini at Mandalay Bay in 2007 for the unveiling of the new “Sopranos” slot machine.
“After we did that appearance, he gave me $10,000,” Schirripa said. “I asked, ‘What’s this for?’ and he said, ‘You worked a lot harder at that event than I did.’ ”
Schirripa introduced Gandolfini to many Vegas dignitaries, among them then-Mirage President Felix Rappaport (as Gandolfini was researching his role as resort president Doug Munny in “Burt Wonderstone”) and Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health founder Larry Ruvo.
“He was a man’s man,” Ruvo said during a phone conversation Wednesday night. “He loved great food and great wine, and he was my kind of guy.
“I am just heartbroken, heartbroken that he’s no longer with us. I will miss him terribly. We lost a good one.”
Ruvo got to know Gandolfini when Gandolfini was in town a couple of years ago during the filming “Burt Wonderstone.” Gandolfini was taken on a tour of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and was blown away by what he saw, which is not an unusual consequence — everyone from Mom to Colin Powell is impressed by the Cleveland Clinic operation.
Gandolfini and Ruvo quickly became friends, and had lunch and dinner during Gandolfini’s time in Vegas. At one point the actor asked Ruvo about how to lend support to the Cleveland Clinic. Ruvo, founder of the research-and-treatment fortress and senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, invited Gandolfini to the upcoming Keep Memory Alive “Power of Love” gala at the MGM Grand in February 2012.
The event was to honor Muhammad Ali on the event of his 70th birthday and the VIP guest list was brimming with stars, Gandolfini among them.
But Gandolfini nearly didn’t make the trip.
“He called the week before and said, ‘My doctor said I can’t come, Larry. I hate to let you down, but I’ve got a very bad knee and he won’t let me fly,’ ” Ruvo said during a phone conversation. “I told him, of course I understood and I was disappointed, but not to get better and thanked him.”
But that wouldn’t be the end of the conversation.
“He called me 48 hours before the event and said, ‘Larry, I’m a tough guy and I’m coming,’ ” Ruvo continued. “I said, ‘Don’t jeopardize your health.’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll be there.’ ”
Gandolfini was still being told not to fly, but did make the event anyway.
“He got in a limousine and rode five hours to Las Vegas so he could show up to our event on crutches,” Ruvo said. “He believed in Keep Memory Alive, he was a supporter, he loved the Cleveland Clinic. … But most important, he was fun. He was great to be with. He was just an absolutely sensational guy to be in a conversation with. I will miss him terribly.”
Schirripa said Gandolfini was a far more complex personality than the role he played on “The Sopranos,” noting that Gandolfini and his second wife, Deborah had a daughter, Liliana Ruth, in October.
“He was a regular guy and a family man,” Schirripa said. “He was a deep-thinking, music-loving, Birkenstock-wearing guy. He cared about his family and his friends. To me, he was nothing like Tony Soprano, and I knew them both.”