"I think the guy sitting next to you just might be on The Sopranos."
It's embarrassing to admit when the death of a famous person -- basically, a stranger -- affects me emotionally. I can name them all right now: John Ritter, Tim Russert, Roger Ebert and, now, James Gandolfini.
Like a lot of other human beings, I loved The Sopranos. I mean, I really loved The Sopranos. I devoured every single second of that show because everything that happened meant something. I still contend that the first season of The Sopranos is the greatest season of television ever filmed. Watch it right now -- it's amazing and it never let up.
As the seasons went by, the episodes, as a whole, became less exciting. But, somehow, they meant more. There was a deeper meaning -- one I desperately wanted to grasp. This was a show that had its main character in a coma for almost half of a season, yet I even cared about Tony Soprano's dreams. The reasons were clear: David Chase's vision and the performance of James Gandolfini.
I'm afraid to meet the people that I admire. It's not that I'm afraid he or she will be disappointing; it's more that I worry I'll say something stupid that will set off a chain reaction and forever tarnish how I think of that person. My memory of the person will forever be changed from "I admire this person greatly," to "That person gave me a weird look after I said something dumb." So, yes, I was really afraid to meet James Gandolfini.
"Come on, one last drink," I pleaded. My friends, both named Steve, were in New York City, visiting from St. Louis. It was 2:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and they had a 7 a.m. flight out of Laguardia that August morning back in 2006. They relented.
The name of the bar was Gaslight, a not-too-terrible establishment considering the time of night and considering that we were in New York City's Meatpacking District, which isn't known for its welcoming, laid-back attitude.
Sitting at the bar, one of the Steves was lamenting that, even though he wasn't necessarily a fan of celebrity sightings, he felt ripped off that he hadn't spotted any Sopranos actors on this trip. A week earlier, another friend and I had seen Michael Imperioli walking down Amsterdam Avenue. Without missing a beat, the second Steve looked at me and said, "I think the guy sitting next to you just might be on The Sopranos."
James Gandolfini was far nicer to us than he ever had to be, and I'll never forget that.
He had gotten up to use the restroom. On his way back, he walked right by me. As he was sitting back down -- after debating the consequences of my future actions profusely -- I said, "My friends are from out of town and we all love what you do." Granted, this was far from eloquent and, really, didn't make a lot of sense. Regardless, a large smile ran across James Gandolfini's face. He leapt back out of his seat and approached the first Steve, "My name is James, nice to meet you. What's your name?" After that Steve answered, James Gandolfini looked the second Steve dead in the eyes, "I'm James. What's your name?"
James Gandolfini could have easily blown us off. Not only would it have been easy, it would have been reasonable. But he didn't. He was that nice of a guy. I didn't work in media at that point in my life -- there were no cameras around. There were no fringe benefits to gain from being nice to us. Truth be told, he made our months. He sent all of us home with what was a happy story, until yesterday. Until the three of us learned yesterday that the guy we all admired so much, who went out of his way to be nice to us, had passed away.
I know that it's a stupid little story. I know that it's a fairly meaningless encounter. Even so, it meant the world to us -- and he didn't have to do that. "Yeah, that's a cherished memory," the first Steve remembered yesterday, "he acted exactly as I'd hoped he would." The second Steve added, "And the best part was that if felt like it could have been Tony, but we knew ultimately it was James."
Gandolfini could be media shy (I never met him or interviewed him professionally), but I had heard too many stories just like mine for it to be a fluke. I told the above story often -- and often it was met with other, similar stories. "Oh, he's out in the neighborhood all the time, he's really friendly," I was told. "He once paid for all of our songs on the jukebox," someone else told me. Famously, after Gandolfini held out for more money after the fourth season of The Sopranos, he made it up to the cast regulars by giving them each $33,333.
We were due another chapter in James Gandolfini's career. Enough time had passed that people were starting to accept him in roles that weren't Tony Soprano. In the past year, he received accolades for his role in David Chase's Not Fade Away and stole the show as a washed-up hitman alongside Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly. I really thought we'd get to see all the gifts he still had to offer in the coming years. Depressingly, that won't happen. Personally, I'll still cherish what he did give us.
And, most importantly, I'll always cherish that he went out of his way to be nice. He went out of his way to be nice when he didn't have to be and to this day we have never forgotten it -- and we never will.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.