James Gandolfini, the celebrated actor best known for his role as mob boss Tony Soprano on the hit TV series "The Sopranos," died Wednesday at the age of 51. While coverage of his death has focused mainly on his acting career, little has been mentioned about the more political side of his work. In New York City, he was a beloved figure not only because of his acting on the stage and screen, but also because of his major support for community media and producing documentaries critical of war. In 2010, he produced the HBO film "Wartorn: 1861-2010" about post-traumatic stress disorder from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also conducted a series of in-depth interviews with U.S. soldiers wounded in the Iraq War for a 2007 HBO film, "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq." We speak to the films’ co-directors, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill.
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we remember James Gandolfini. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, well, we end today’s show with a look at a lesser-known side of a well-known actor, James Gandolfini. Celebrated for his role as mob boss Tony Soprano on the hit TV series The Sopranos, he died Wednesday at the age of 51. He was vacationing with his family in Italy when he died of a possible heart attack.
The coverage of his death has focused mainly on his portrayal of Tony Soprano, a role that earned him three Emmys. He’s also been recognized for his roles in films including Get Shorty, Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In a statement, Sopranos creator David Chase called James Gandolfini, quote, "one of the greatest actors of this or any time."
AMY GOODMAN: But the news coverage has mentioned little about the more political side of James Gandolfini’s work. In New York City, he was a beloved figure not only because of his acting on the stage and screen, but also because of his major support for community media. And while his fictional roles have received wide acclaim, he has received less attention for his leading roles in two documentaries about the ravages of war on U.S. soldiers. In 2010, he produced the HBO film Wartorn: 1861-2010 about post-traumatic stress disorder from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also conducted a series of in-depth interviews with U.S. soldiers wounded in the Iraq War for a 2007 HBO film called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. The film centers on the idea that the soldiers remember two key dates in their lives: their birthday and their alive day, the day when they narrowly escaped a violent death. This is the trailer for the film.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: How are you? Mike, I’m right in front of you. It’s Jim Gandolfini.
SOLDIER 1: Hi. How are you doing, sir? How are you?
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Good to see you here.
SOLDIER 1: Great. How are you doing?
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Why did you join the Army?
SOLDIER 2: I wanted to go and protect the nation and defend it and punish those who would seek to destroy it.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Everyone I’ve talked to knows the exact day when they’ve been hit.
FIRST LT. DAWN HALFAKER: And it was one of those nights in the desert. I’ll never forget it.
SOLDIER 3: I had my left hand on the steering wheel. I was smoking, and then the bomb went off.
SOLDIER 4: All I heard was screaming, and everything went black.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer for the HBO film Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, produced by James Gandolfini.
For more, we’re joined here in New York by the film’s co-directors, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill. They also co-directed Wartorn. They work together at New York’s Downtown Community Television, a community media center based in Chinatown, where we also worked until we moved to our new studios. It’s where James Gandolfini is—was a board member. Jon Alpert is the founder and executive director of DCTV. This year, Jon and Matt were nominated for an Oscar for their short film Redemption, about bottle and can collectors in New York City. Their other honors over the years include four Emmys for the 2006 film Baghdad ER.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Great to see you guys. Jon, talk about James Gandolfini. He was a friend of yours, he was a board member of DCTV, and he did your films.
JON ALPERT: He was a friend to many people. And I think if you could just sort of crystallize him, he sort of believed in nobody left behind. He didn’t leave his high school friends behind. He didn’t leave his college friends behind. He didn’t leave the soldiers behind. He didn’t leave people with learning disabilities—didn’t leave them behind, didn’t leave me behind. You know, any time he came to town, the phone would ring. Democracy Now! and DCTV used to be neighbors. We’re, what, 20 blocks away, and we consider each other friends, but we don’t call each other up. We work. We’re in our own little world. Jim’s world was really big, and he made sure that he never forgot anybody. And when you were his friend, you were always his friend.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how did he get involved with DCTV, to begin with? Because, obviously, it’s a—the commercial acting world is somewhat removed from documentaries and community media.
JON ALPERT: Through working on the documentaries, we all showed a respect for the sacrifice of the soldiers, a horror at the cost of the wars. And he worked really hard on those documentaries. The interesting thing about the documentaries, you know, in their essence, they show war in all its terror. They’re antiwar films. And the Army has embraced these films and shows them to every single soldier that comes into the Army. I mean, it was a really constructive series of documentaries. And he came to DCTV. He especially liked our high school kids. He bought them all cameras this Christmas so they could tell their stories. We didn’t have money for cameras. Jim bought the cameras.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one of Jim Gandolfini’s interviews with Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. He’s speaking with First Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker, who lost an arm in Iraq.
FIRST LT. DAWN HALFAKER: When I came back, a lot of people would ask me, "Well, what do—well, how do you feel about this? Do you ever—you know, do you ever think you’ll get married? Do you ever think you’ll have a boyfriend? Do you ever think you’ll have kids? And, you know, I didn’t know the answers to all those questions. But as I go through life, I’m learning that it’s—it has nothing to do with whether or not I’m an amputee. I mean, I—you know, do I wonder if my kid—if I ever have a kid, do I wonder if they’ll love me, like, for who I am? I hope so.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: What were you just thinking about?
FIRST LT. DAWN HALFAKER: The reality of, you know, will I be able to raise a kid? I won’t be able to pick up my son or daughter with two arms. I won’t. But I just—you know, I hope they still love me, and I hope I’ll still be a good parent. What can you do?
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Well, if it matters, I think you’re going to be a wonderful parent.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jim Gandolfini speaking with First Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker. Matt O’Neill.
MATTHEW O’NEILL: I think what you see there, when he asks Dawn, "What are you thinking?" after that long pause, is an example of why he connected to people. He listened so carefully to what the soldiers were saying. He paid attention to what we were talking about, about documentaries or about friendship. And he treated everyone with respect and warmth. And I think that, you know, when you had said the political side of Jim, I was thinking about these interviews, and it wasn’t political in the traditional sense of the word, but he wanted people to hear the stories that he heard. And he was inspired by what they said. He was inspired by the fact that he had never heard these stories before. He did USO tours and came back saying, "Why is nobody talking about these soldiers’ lives? How can I help tell these stories?" And you see in that film, in that clip there, about all you ever see of him in the film, the back of his head, because he wanted the cameras focused and the spotlight focused on other people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s one of the things I wanted to raise, how little he felt the need to be seen in the films or even to raise long questions of the film.
MATTHEW O’NEILL: It was always about them. I remember when we were doing press for the film out in Los Angeles, and the press would be saying, "Jim, Jim," or, "James, James, Mr. Gandolfini!" And he’d always grab one of the soldiers and say, "Don’t talk to me; talk to them. It’s about them; it’s not about me. I got nothing to say." And he lent his energy and his warmth and his compassion to these stories that weren’t being heard. And it was a real gift to everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from the HBO documentary Wartorn, of James Gandolfini interviewing two members of the Louisiana National Guard at Camp Slayer in Iraq. The soldiers are Sergeant John Wesley Mathews and Sergeant First Class Jonathan Deshotels.
SGT. JOHN WESLEY MATHEWS: It’s hard to be taught to do what we do—you know, it’s combat arms—and then they expect you to just turn it off. And that’s the hard thing about being in the Guard, is that you go back and they expect you to just get back in society.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Who’s they?
SFC. JONATHAN DESHOTELS: Family, friends, whoever else.
SGT. JOHN WESLEY MATHEWS: And the Army. In early April of '06 really is when I hit rock bottom. I actually contemplated suicide for a while. It had really gotten to the point where—you know, I didn't know what it was. Mentally, I didn’t know where I was. I was lost. I mean, I really felt like I was feeling my way with my hands in the dark.
SFC. JONATHAN DESHOTELS: It’s like you just can’t get straight.
SGT. JOHN WESLEY MATHEWS: Yeah.
SFC. JONATHAN DESHOTELS: You just can’t get yourself right. And no matter what you do—
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Even talking to other people, talking to each other, there’s nothing that helps?
SFC. JONATHAN DESHOTELS: Yeah, no, it just—it’s just—you just can’t figure yourself out.
SGT. JOHN WESLEY MATHEWS: It will tear you apart. It will tear your life apart. And many a soldier has met an end at his own hand or at a bottle or something, because they didn’t know where—they didn’t know what to do.
AMY GOODMAN: The documentary Wartorn. The voice in the distance, Jim Gandolfini. Jon Alpert?
JON ALPERT: But it wasn’t distant from people, because everybody thought they knew him. He was sitting in your living room every Sunday night, and he was part of your family. He spent more time with you than your cousins. And it was instant recognition. And so people were ready to talk and share intimate things with him. And that was an extraordinary gift that he brought to these documentaries.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And his involvement with Downtown Community Television? I mean, as a board member, was he frequently in the firehouse?
MATTHEW O’NEILL: He came by the firehouse whenever he was in town. You know, he continued to work on documentaries, and he stayed involved in our lives, the same way he stayed involved in the soldiers’ lives. We’ve had so many of the people from Wartorn and from Alive Day Memories reach out to us as they mourn. You know, he gave these men and women his cellphone number. He was a super, you know, big movie star, and they stayed in touch with him for years, because he lent that intimate connection and kept up with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Last comment, Jon Alpert?
JON ALPERT: Well, we’re in the—we’re in the middle of a documentary that he was producing about people with learning disabilities. It’s another cause that he felt very strongly about—again, nobody left behind. The kids who were pushed into the back of the classroom, he felt that wasn’t right. He knew that if they had the right educational opportunity, they could blossom, and he wanted everybody in the country to think about that.
And I’d also like the Democracy Now! community not only to think about Jim, but also another documentary filmmaker, Saul Landau. He’s a friend of ours, and we need to send him our best wishes. He’s a really good guy.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, and all the best to Saul. And you can go to our website, democracynow.org, to see our interviews with Saul Landau, who’s battling cancer right now. Well, I want to thank you both for being with us and for all the work that you do, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, who co-directed Wartorn: 1861-2010 and Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. They were were both produced by James Gandolfini.
And that does it for our show. A very fond farewell to our video production fellow Nemo Allen. We thank you, Nemo, for your persistence, for your dedication, and wish you the very best in your journey to Colombia and beyond. You’ll always be with us.