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Gandolfini: Known as a TV mobster, remembered as a fighter for veterans

James Gandolfini, who rose to fame as Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” loved playing the complicated mobster. It is likely the role he’ll be most remembered for after his unexpected passing on June 19.

But as much fame and recognition as the role brought him, he was at heart a blue-collared guy who seemed just as proud of his HBO projects that involved bringing attention to the plight of veterans: 2007's "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq" and 2010's "Wartorn: 1861-2010."

James Gandolfini speaks to Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli inHBO

“Alive Day Memories,” which he both hosted and executive produced, took a look at wounded soldiers and the physical and emotional cost of the Iraq War.

“Coming right on the heels of ‘The Sopranos’ controversial season finale, this showed such a different and impassioned side of James Gandolfini: so soft-spoken and careful in his sensitive interviews with grievously wounded veterans. If anyone ever doubted that the actor was a world removed from the conflicted brute he played so brilliantly on TV, this documentary reinforced the ‘gentle giant’ side of his personality,” Matt Roush, senior TV critic for TV Guide, told NBC News. “He obviously admired and respected these men and women and felt it a privilege to let them tell their stories through him. Hard to imagine a better use of one's celebrity and clout than getting the home network (to whom he stayed remarkably loyal, and vice versa) to expose this project to a wide audience.”

Gandolfini, who was never a fan of answering questions from throngs of reporters, set aside his own feelings and attended the Television Critics Association’s 2007 summer press tour to promote the project.

“I went to Iraq because I was playing this tough guy on TV, and I guess I wanted to go meet a few real ones. I was angry about the lack of attention that was being paid,” Gandolfini told reporters. “I thought it was the least I could do.”

Gandolfini made the trip to Iraq two years before filming the documentary. Of the trip, he said, “I met a lot of people and I met the soldiers. And then I came home and it was like, there’s nothing here (on TV about the impact of the war on soldiers). What’s going on? (HBO) came to me and I said, ‘Yeah. Whatever I can do.’“

Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, explained to reporters at the press tour that the network had wanted to do a documentary about veterans of the Iraq War. “We knew this was not an easy thing to watch, and it was not something necessarily that we could get people to watch,” she added.

But she knew that with Gandolfini on board, viewers would tune in. “We spent a day with him at Walter Reed, watching him go from bed to bed and mother to mother,” she said. “I knew I actually had a way possibly to make people watch these young men and women who were coming home.”

During the panel, the actor made sure the focus stayed on the wounded warriors who were there sharing the stage with him, deflecting any questions about himself and redirecting back to the subjects of the documentary.

“It’s not about me,” he told reporters when asked about how the project impacted him. “I’m not trying to be antagonistic in any way, but I’d like the questions directed towards other things besides how it changed me, you know what I’m saying? Let’s have a different question.”

The veterans involved in the documentary praised him for being a good listener and setting aside his own star status to put their stories front and center. Not only that, they said the star was anything but a celebrity when he worked with them.

“You weren’t talking to Tony Soprano,” veteran Jay Wilkerson, who is featured in the documentary, said of speaking with the actor for the film. “You were talking to this man who cared about us and our stories. He listened, really listened to what we had to say.”

“He made me feel like I was open to say anything and everything I wanted to say, and I had no boundaries,” the vet also said. “And that’s what I was never able to do in Iraq. I was always told not to do that. He made it possible. And so I opened my mouth and spoke, and it was exactly what happened, word for word.”

Veteran Jonathan Bartlett, who lost his legs in the war, said the actor seemed a bit intimidating when they first met, but after they started talking, Gandolfini listened.

"There’s a lot of people, when you try to talk about this
 stuff, it’s not something they want to hear about," Barlett told reporters at press tour. "We’re
 talking about the way I died, talking about the way my legs
 were torn off, talking about the way I almost lost my eye, 
talking about the way my dreams were shattered, and the man 
I thought I was is still living in me and he’s blown to 
crap. That’s hard to articulate. We sat, we got
 comfortable, and we just let it all out, and that’s very,
 very nice."

After the presentation, Gandolfini kept his own dislike for talking to member of the press at bay for the greater good of promoting the project. At an HBO party that hot July night, reporters instructed by their editors to get something from Gandolfini about the controversial “Sopranos” series final that aired the month before tried breaching the wall with zero success. Gandolfini was tossing back appletinis and talked only about the veterans surrounding him.

When one reporter he was familiar with slipped in a “Sopranos” question during a more indepth interview, instead of getting angry, he broke into a smile. Then he laughed and put his arms around the writer and whispered in her ear.

“That was a really good one, and almost makes me want to answer, but all this isn’t about me. It’s about them,” said Gandolfini.

Everyone thought the reporter had gotten a scoop. And she did: confirmation that Gandolfini cared more about the people in the documentary than in exploiting the opportunity to get more publicity out of his higher profile role.

A rare thing indeed in Hollywood.