The 'Sopranos' star James Gandolfini was also an advocate for wounded vets. (photo: Fred R. Conrad/NYT)
22 June 13
ames 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.
JUAN GONZALEZ: 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 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 as 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 "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 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 they're alive day, the day when they narrowly escaped a violent death. This is the trailer for the film.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Mike, I'm right in front of you, it's Jim Gandolfini.
SOLDIER: Hi, how you doing, Sir?
JAMES GANDOLFINI: How are you? It's good to see you again.
SOLDIER: Great. How you doing?
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Why did you join the Army?
SOLDIER: I wanted to go and protect the nation and defend it protect it and punish those who seek to destroy it.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Everyone I've talked to know the exact date when they've been hit.
SOLDIER: It was one of those nights in the desert. I will never forget it.
SOLDIER: I had my left hand on the steering wheel. I was smoking and then the bomb went off.
SOLDIER: 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: 1861-2010." 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 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! Jon, talk about James Gandolfini. He was a friend of yours, and was a board member of DCTV and he did your films.
JON ALPERT: He was a friend to many people. I think if you could just sort of crystallize him, he sort of believed in nobody left behind. He did not leave his high school friends behind or his college friends behind he didn't leave the soldiers behind. He did not leave people with learning disabilities - didn't leave them behind, didn't leave me behind. 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. He made sure that he never forgot anybody. When you were his friend, you were always his friend.
JUAN GONZALEZ: 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 soldiers, horror at the cost of the wars. He worked really hard on those documentaries. The interesting thing about documentaries, in their essence, they show war in all its terror. They are antiwar films. The army has embraced these films and shows him to every single soldier that comes into the army. It was a really constructive series of documentaries. 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 - how do you feel about this? 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? I did not know the answers to all those questions, but as I go through life, I am learning that it has nothing to do with whether or not I'm amputee. Do I wonder if I ever my kid, if I ever have a kid, do I wonder if they'll love me for who I am? I hope so.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: What were you just thinking about?
FIRST LT. DAWN HALFAKER: The reality of, 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, I hope they still love me, and I hope I will 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 Lt. Dawn Halfaker. Matt O'Neill.
MATTHEW O'NEILL: I think when you see that when he asks Dawn, Dawn, what are you thinking, after that long pause, I think 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. I think, when you said the political side of Jim, I was thinking about these interviews, and it was not political in the traditional sense of the word, but he wanted people to hear the stories that he heard. He was inspired by what they said. He was inspired by the fact that he had never heard the 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. You see in that film, in that clip there, about all you ever see of him in the film is the back of his head, because he wanted the cameras focused and the spotlight focused on other people.
JUAN GONZALEZ: 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 would 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. He lent his energy and his warmth and his compassion to these stories that were not being heard. It was a real gift everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Let's go to a clip from the HBO documentary, "Wartorn: 1861-2010" of James Gandolfini interviewing two members of the Louisiana National Guard at Camps 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. It's combat arms, and then they expect you to just turn it off. That is a hard thing about being in the guard, is that you go back and they expect you to just to just get back in society.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: Who is they?
SGT FIRST CLASS JONATHAN DESHOTELS: Family, friends, whoever else.
SGT. JOHN WESLEY MATHEWS: ...and the Army. In early April of 2006 is really when I hit rock bottom. I actually contemplated suicide for a while. It had really got to the point where I did not know what it was. Mentally I did not know where I was. I was lost. I really felt like I was feeling my way with my hands in the dark.
SGT FIRST CLASS JONATHAN DESHOTELS: It's like you just can't get straight. You just can't get yourself right. And no matter what you do -
JAMES GANDOLFINI: You mean, talking to other people, talking to each other, there's nothing that helps?
SGT FIRST CLASS JONATHAN DESHOTELS: 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 because they didn't know to do.
AMY GOODMAN: The documentary "Wartorn." The voice in the distance was Jim Gandolfini.
JON ALPERT: But, it wasn't distant from people because everybody thought that 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. It was instant recognition. 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 GONZALEZ: And his involvement with Downtown Community Television? As a board member, was he frequently in The Firehouse?
MATTHEW O'NEILL: He came by The Firehouse whenever he was in town. He continued to work in documentary's. 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. He gave these men and women his cellphone number. He was a super 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: 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. I would 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 is a really good guy.
AMY GOODMAN: That's right, all the best to Saul. You can go to our website,, to see our interviews with Saul Landau who is battling cancer right now. I want to thank you both for being with us and all of 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. 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 will always be with us.