Backstage with The Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti: James Gandolfini, a Soft-Spoken Hollywood Heavyweight

It’s already been eight years since the untimely passing of 51-year-old actor James Gandolfini.  And still, any time his name is mentioned in any article or interview, the term “a class act” appears in every one.

I had the good fortune to work with Jim at a few Sopranos cast parties at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.  I was managing the daughter of 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.

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.

We were in a hotel elevator once in Memphis.  It was the Peabody Hotel where the famed “Duck March” would occur twice daily.  They are trained ducks that take the elevator down to the lobby and march to the fountain located in the center of the hotel.  He never heard of this ritual and when the elevator doors opened, he freaked out at the packed hotel lobby.  He thought the throngs of fans were there for him, and he was embarrassed because it was a golf day and he was in an old T-shirt and a bandana on his head.

He formulated this plan so that he could slide out with minimal attention by backing out of the elevator.  The doors opened 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 with a crooked smile.

Many Italian American organizations shunned Jim 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.”

James passed away of a heart attack in 2013 in Rome, Italy while on vacation with his thirteen-year-old son, Michael.  Even with an amazing career under his belt, the tragedy lies in the work he will never get a chance to do.

This is another example of someone gone too soon, and another lesson about enjoying each day as if it were your last.  Make the most of life… for one day you are here, and the next day, “Bada-Bing,” you are gone.