I met James Gandolfini in late 1992 when he came to a casting call for a feature film I was producing called Italian Movie. Not much was being produced in New York back then, so we had the good fortune of access to the top preproduction, production, and post production talent including the remarkable casting director Ellen Parks. During auditions, I would sit between Ellen and director Roberto Monticello and feed the lines to the actors as they tried out one by one. This was a special project, written by Marco Cristino, an air conditioning contractor with a personal story to tell about his adventures as a young Italian immigrant and small business man in Carroll Gardens Brooklyn, when it was still “Mobbed Up” and debts were paid in more ways than one.
The part we were casting for that day was the lead role of the shake down artist, the gentle, but ruthless villain who never let a debt go unpaid. We had read 5 or 6 actors that day, some with names you might know, but none of them seemed right. That was until a humble thirtyish young man looking ten years older than he was walked in.
“Hi, I’m Jimmy. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try out for this part.” He sat down looked at the sides for a few seconds, and then asked me if it would be OK if he went into the other room for a few minutes.
When he came back Ellen explained the part in more detail and asked if he was ready. He nodded. I read him the first line. Then, in the blink of an eye, he transformed from a humble gentle man into a very very frightening one. By the reading of the second line, I realized I was witnessing something very special. A rare moment when you know you are around greatness.
When the audition was over, just as quickly as he had disappeared, the gentle humble soul who was James Gandolfini reappeared, took a breath, gave a broad smile, thanked us again for the opportunity and sheepishly walked away.
The room was filled with awe and silence. This man had so much talent, it was hard to believe no one had every noticed it before. The three of us looked at each other, like the Kodak clients in Mad Men after hearing Don Drapper’s pitch on the Kodak Carrousel . There was no need to look at anyone else.
“Let’s sign him up before someone else does!!”
The process that followed in order to accomplish this is another very interesting very Hollywood story…
The gentle giant who years later, after he became rich and famous, would still call out to me or lay his hand on my shoulder whenever he would see me on the street in Greenwich Village. I remember the first time he did it — well after Tony Soprano became a household name..
“Mr. Guzzardo, right?” he said. “I can’t believe what they are doing with me, it’s crazy…. Thank you…”