Ron Onesti:  Memories of a Soft-Spoken Hollywood Heavyweight

As a proud Italian American, it is challenging to support television shows and films that perpetuate the stereotypes about Italians and Italian Americans being associated with the Mafia.  The reality was that fewer than one percent of all organized crime situations involved someone of Italian ancestry.

That being said, I do appreciate the acting ability of a few of those stars who routinely play characters that leave less than savory tastes in the mouths of Italian Americans.

For example, I had the good fortune to befriend James Gandolfini, the robust star of “The Sopranos” on HBO.  Although he was a critically acclaimed film actor, he was best known for his portrayal of Mob boss Anthony Soprano on television.  As I got to know him, I appreciated his acting ability more and more, even the way he changed his voice to sound like a typical New York City gangster.  If you spoke to him off-camera, you would have heard a different, warmer voice with a bit of a lisp.

I provided some of the musical entertainment at Sopranos’ cast parties when the show was at its height.  I worked with Jimmy and most of the other cast members at a few Sopranos cast parties at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.  I was managing the daughter of Jazz legend Louis Prima, Lena Prima at the time.  We, along with the Lon Bronson Orchestra from Las Vegas and The Bronx Tale’s Louis Vanaria from New York, provided the musical element to the parties while casino “whales’ rubbed shoulders with the stars of the show.

When Gandolfini unexpectedly passed away in 2013 at the age of 51, it shocked the entertainment world.  He was such a soft-spoken, sweet guy, very generous with his time.  I never saw him dodge a fan, even when walking through the casino floor.  His true “Teddy-bear” personality was about as far from his alter-ego Tony Soprano as you could get, even though he was at his career all-time high at the time.

Participating in a celebrity golf outing one year, we wound up in in a hotel elevator together in Memphis coming down to depart for the golf course.  It was at the Peabody Hotel where the famed “Duck March” would occur twice daily.  They are trained ducks that take the elevator down to the lobby from the roof of the hotel and march to the fountain located in the center of the room.  It is really something to see.  I had never heard of the ritual, and neither had Jimmy.

So when the elevator doors opened, he freaked out at the packed hotel lobby.  Camera flashes blinded us, the crowd was cheering, and excitement filled the air.  But Jimmy was mortified. He did not expect that kind of a welcome.  He was embarrassed because it was a golf day and he was in an old T-shirt and a bandana on his head.  Plus, his humility made him even more uncomfortable.  We just let the doors shut.

Now ready for what was on the other side of the doors, he formulated this plan so that he could slide out with minimal attention by backing out of the elevator.  The doors opened again and he did this bob-and-weave move to get out of the lobby.  But he was almost disappointed when not one person made a fuss over him.  At that moment, the ducks walked out of the next elevator, welcomed by a thunderous applause.  He just looked at me, a bit red-faced and that signature crooked smile.  It was the ducks everyone was there to see, not him.  He was part embarrassed, part relieved as we walked untouched straight through the center of the hotel lobby.  We laughed about that the rest of the day!

If you watched the show, you would have seen an episode or two where Anthony Soprano had “befriended” some ducks who made his home swimming pool their lair.  I wonder if our experience had anything to do with that storyline?

Many Italian American organizations shunned Gandolfini for his role in promoting a negative stereotype of Italians on television.  When I asked him about it, he said, “I am an actor.  It is what I do.  My job is to entertain.  I know where my grandparents came from and what they went through to get our family to this country.  I have always been proud of my work as an actor, and I believe in my heart my grandparents would be proud of me today.  There is nobody prouder of their heritage than I am, and people don’t see the amount of support I give to organizations in the Italian American community.  I even pushed for the Columbus Day episode,” he said.

I was asked to coordinate Jimmy’s memorial service in New Jersey.  It was attended by much of his family and his friends.  Seeing them mourn truly made the big star even more human to me.  He was one of the good ones for sure, with a great sense of humor and a huge heart.  Even with an amazing career under his belt, the tragedy lies in the work he will never get a chance to do, and the gift of his craft to his fans.  This is another example of someone gone too soon, and another lesson about enjoying each day as if it were your last.  What a terrible loss, like so many others who left us before their time.  I think of him often.  He would say, “Make the most of life… for one day you are here, and then the next day, ‘Bada-Bing,’ you are gone.”