James Gandolfini was 'the glue that kept us together,' says lifelong friend Karen Duffy

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Jimmy and I grew up together. We were friends since seventh grade and we went to a small high school in New Jersey. It was impossible not to love this kid. He was voted Best Looking and Class Flirt. Girls loved him because he was beautiful, inside and out. He was a great athlete and we did the plays together. Jimmy was quiet in person but explosive on stage. In my yearbook, he kind of wrote something like, “Duff, I’ll see you on Broadway.”

Fairly quickly out of college, he was working in the city and immediately started getting acting work. That was kind of just when I started modeling, and I was on MTV when he was on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. Serendipitously, Jimmy and I ended up living next door to each other in the Village, so we never have not been in touch. We’ve shared experiences and milestones in our lives, so I remember him sitting on his stoop having coffee and telling me he was going to be a father for the first time.

What was so great was that he always felt connected and responsible and deeply loyal to the people he grew up with. If you were a friend of Jim’s, he remained not just friendly, but an actively engaged friend. He made an art of friendship. When I was going through my illness, he was incredible supportive. Always the first thing that he said when we saw each other was, “How you feeling? How’s your kid?” He remembered your kid. He remembered your family.

I remember going with him to the first ever Sopranos premiere at John’s Pizza, and Jimmy invited all of his buddies from high school. He was like that. He would never say, “No” to a friend. A lot of the crew on The Sopranos were friends from high school. When he first had some success, I remember him saying to the fellas, the buddies he was hanging around with, he was like, “We’re good now.” It was always him taking it for the team.

When I got hired as entertainment host at HBO, he was the biggest star on HBO. It was so funny that he pretty much changed the landscape for TV programming and my job was to interview him at these big Soprano events, and Golden Globes, and Emmys. He would always joke to me on the red carpet, “Can you believe it? Two knuckleheads from Park Ridge. Here we are at the Golden Globes.”

I never met anyone like him. For a quiet man, when he walked into a room, the room tilted in his direction. Everyone wanted to be around him. He wasn’t a one-man conga line. He was really warm, but there was a shyness to him. I felt like he was somewhat embarrassed that he had all this attention, that he had this gift, this unbelievable role of a lifetime. The ugliness and excess and the indulgence of Tony Soprano was not Jimmy. What he brought was Jimmy’s eyes — when Jimmy cracked that smile, it just felt like the sun was shining. He just lit up. It’s not one of those all-teeth smiles; it was like a beautiful little connection, and I think people loved him because he made you feel special.

He did unbelievable acts of generosity for our friends from high school who started a a little foundation in Park Ridge for women with breast cancer, and every year, Jimmy went to that OctoberWoman event. He didn’t just go — he looped in the entire cast from The Sopranos, and he’d take pictures with everybody who wanted it. I felt like he was always so empathetic for people who were suffering and was always looking how he could be of service. We came from a parish where the priest said “If you do something good and anybody finds out about it, it doesn’t count.” That was what we were taught, so Jimmy didn’t want the keys to the city. He didn’t want somebody to give him a parade. He just felt the reward for doing good work is the opportunity to do more good work, and I think that’s the way he looked at life.

I think he was in on the joke that he couldn’t believe the success that he was having, but he was really confident. It was built from the fact that he knew himself and he knew what his strengths were. You become what you think about the most, and I think he thought about his family and friends and loyalty and generosity, and that’s what he became.

The last time I saw him, he was just radiant. It was just a couple of months ago at this big Hollywood party, and as soon as I saw him, he gave me one of those embracing hugs where you feel like you’re tied together with him. And he showed me a picture of his son, Michael, holding his new baby sister, and I was like, “Dude, can you believe it?” It was just something to see him so happy, and he just said, “This is love. This is it.”

The ancient Greek view of happiness was really defined by leading a productive life: It’s not about how much you have, it’s about what you do with it. And I felt like he was most proud of his relationships with his extended family. Since Wednesday, the cast of The Sopranos has been sending me emails, and they’re just saying, “He was our brother. We were a family.” And I think that’s why we’re all taking it so hard. Because he was a uniter. He was the glue that kept us together.

Karen Duffy made a name for herself as a fashion model and one of MTV’s most popular VJs in the early 1990s, before appearing in several movies such as Who’s the Man? and Dumb & Dumber. She wrote Model Patient: My Life As an Incurable Wise-Ass in 2001, a memoir chronicling her battle against sarcoidosis, a rare disease of the central nervous system.

Read more:
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David Chase on James Gandolfini: ‘He was a genius’
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James Gandolfini’s best ‘Sopranos’ lines: The Tao of Tony
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