The following post is by a longtime friend of B&C Editor-in-Chief Melissa Grego, director Jon Rosenbaum (A.N.T. Farm, Big Time Rush). Rosenbaum directed James Gandolfini in the TV movie Nicky Deuce, which premiered on Nickelodeon May 27. Gandolfini died Wednesday while on vacation in Italy.
I had the honor of working with James Gandolfini last summer on the Nickelodeon movie Nicky Deuce. He was enthusiastic and a true gentleman to me and the entire cast and crew. Not only did he make time in his schedule to fly all the way from LA to Montreal to support his friend and fellow Sopranos cast mate Steve Schirripa, who wrote and produced the film, but he came ready to play in what would become a crowd-favorite scene of him getting his butt hilariously kicked by a 16 year old.
We were all simultaneously excited and nervous for James’ arrival. None of us knew what to expect but we all knew for damn sure that we needed everything to go smoothly in front of our esteemed guest star. This sense of terrifying anticipation was heightened when James first stepped onto the set and we all saw just how imposing a presence he was. He had no entourage, but physically, he was one of the few people I’d ever met who could make my 6′3 broad frame feel small (!), and his intense demeanor instantly captivated the room. I nervously introduced myself as the director, and after sizing me up, he stared at me with his piercing eyes and muttered, “Great, so I’m going to be taking orders from a guy in a Muppet T-shirt.” And suddenly, those eyes filled with a twinkle, and I knew that beneath that intimidating exterior lay a gentle and fun-loving soul.
James’ scene involved a brief confrontation between him and two of our teen stars in the hallway of a rundown building, followed by a crazy sequence of physical comedy shenanigans inside James’ apartment. Normally, I would have started the shoot with James’ coverage out of respect for our guest. But given the nature of the sequence, it made far more sense logistically to film the boys in the hall first, then turn the cameras around onto James and start working our way inside. I delicately broached the strategy with James and he told me he was there to service the film, so whatever I needed, he would happily do. I couldn’t think of a less diva-esque response from someone who had several Emmys on his mantel. Not surprisingly, instead of having a stand-in or script supervisor read his off-camera lines to the on-camera boys, James stood beside the cameras for all the boys’ shots and gave them such an energetic delivery to play off of that they were VISIBLY affected and had no choice but to raise the bar on their own performances. That is the definition of a generous actor.
James embraced the fun atmosphere the entire day: “Jon, I have no clue why I need to be upside down and covered in macaroni for this shot, but you seem to know what you’re doing so I trust you” (followed by an I-might-also-kill-you-afterward stare). He cared about the material, even coming up with a slew of ad-lib dialogue that made all of us howl…and made the climax to the scene even better in the final edit. Perhaps the most telling memory for me was when James missed his mark by the slightest margin as we threw frozen tilapia at him (which, by the way, he insisted he do himself because it would look funnier than with a stunt double), and then proceeded to lambaste himself for the mistake. I happened to catch this private moment out of the corner of my eye and was impressed that an actor of his stature would approach a small tween comedy movie with as much professionalism and perfectionism as he would any of his bigger roles. He truly went Soprano on himself because he wanted the moment to be great.
Well the moment WAS great James, and I thank you for the experience bringing “Bobby Eggs” to the screen. That you could be larger than life and still so down to earth inspired us all.