When his Sopranos boss David Chase asked James Gandolfini to play another New Jersey Italian for his movie, a working class dad unhappy with his musician-son’s career choice in the swinging ‘60s, the big man didn’t hesitate.
“I knew this guy,” Gandolfini says. “There’s a lot of my dad in him.”
Pasquale, his character in Not Fade Away, is a gruff mechanic who runs a local Pep Boys auto repair shop. He’s pushing his son (John Magaro) to go to college. He doesn’t approve of the kid’s music, his long hair, his crazy clothes.
“You look like you just got offa the boat,” Pasquale — he goes by the assimilated name “Pat” — bellows.
“I heard that from my parents,” Gandolfini says, as the child of first-generation Italian immigrants. When he grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, “My mother used to say, in her thick Italian accent, ‘You look like Professor cor-ey!’ Remember [TV comic] Professor Irwin Corey? With the wild hair all over the place, and the long baggy coat? I got a lot of that.”
That upbringing informs his father figure in Not Fade Away, combative scenes that highlight the generation gap between Depression survivors and kids indulging in the leisure of “finding myself.” But Gandolfini truly paid tribute to his dad with the film’s “You’re a man, now” moment that has critics praising the “affecting, subtle strokes” (The Hollywood Reporter) of his performance.
“I remember when I realized my dad was a man, like other men,” Gandolfini says. “He had dreams. He had a life that was completely separate from his family. As a son, if you see and feel that, your relationship with your father gets better. You realize that he’s not just stopping you from some dream of yours. He’s showing you that you have responsibilities …
“So this guy, like my dad, was saying, ‘Get as much of the other stuff in as you can, but life isn’t always going to be that way.’ That makes you appreciate that this guy gave up stuff for you … It’s a pretty big moment in a son’s life, I think.”
Gandolfini pauses thoughtfully, remembering James Joseph Gandolfini, Sr., a brick mason from Borgotaro, Italy. “He talked about ‘The War’ late in life ... There was so much I didn’t know. You can have a vision of your father, but it can never be complete. He’s not just the guy who drove me around when I was a kid, and yelled at me for not doing yard work.
“That’s something I owed to my father, and it was my way of playing him.”
James Gandolfini, Jr., is making his mark as a stellar character actor these days, taking on one last mob hit man in the critically acclaimed Killing Them Softly — “ You put all the mob guys I’ve played together, that’s who this guy is. At the end, the arc of his life is finished.”
And in the hunt-for-Bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty, Gandolfini is a testy, results-oriented CIA chief (presumably Leon Panetta).
“It wasn’t a big part, but I wanted to be a part of an important movie. I liked the way it portrayed the military.”
But Not Fade Away, a Jersey tale with music, is closest to this Jersey guy’s heart. Well, except for the music part.
“I remember when I was a kid my friend Ira Berman playing Bruce Springsteen for me, and I said ‘That sucks. I can’t understand a word he’s saying!’
“Lo and behold, after listening to the album a few times, I got it. But boy, good thing I didn’t work for Rolling Stone.”