Family holds private wake for James Gandolfini

Tomorrow, thousands of people, celebrities to average fans, are expected at the public funeral for James Gandolfini at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

But today, the family of the Park Ridge-bred actor held a wake in his hometown that drew primarily close family and friends, many of whom knew Gandolfini before he became famous.

During the first hour, designated for the immediate family, a large black van was moved to diagonally block off one part of the driveway, to shield those arriving from view of the public and media gathered outside the Robert Spearing Funeral Home in Park Ridge.

Men in black suits provided further protection, using opened black umbrellas to escort the mourners to the front door.

This was so effective that most of the photographers set up on the street outside the home did not get a clear shot of the arrivals of Gandolfini’s ex-wife, Marcy Wudarski; their 13-year-old son, Michael; his widow, Deborah Lin; or their 8-month-old daughter, Liliana.

Some 18 police officers from the borough Police Department, the reserves and the Bergen County Police Department were dispatched to keep order, said Capt. Joseph Rampolla of the Park Ridge police.

For the most part, the media and the public respected the boundaries, Rampolla said.

Among the few guests departing the funeral home who spoke to reporters outside were friends Dan Katz of West Orange, New Jersey, and Gloria Lowell of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

As they left the wake around 6:15 p.m., they described the mood inside – where the coffin was closed – as subdued. The crowd, they said, was all friends and family, with no “Sopranos” cast members or other celebrities present, at least up to that point.

The modest actor, Katz said, “would probably be incredulous at the fuss being made over him in death. … He would be laughing at the flag (at the state government buildings) flying half-staff. He was a very private person. He didn’t like the limelight.”

Bob Sottolano, from Westwood, New Jersey, a friend of James’ sister Leta Gandolfini, also spoke briefly to reporters on his way out of the wake.

“It’s like a roller coaster. The emotions are flying, like when anyone dies suddenly,” Sottolano said, adding that with Gandolfini’s son Michael, “All I can do to a kid that (young) is shake his hand and pat him on the back.”

The traffic cones and a “Road Closed” sign that blocked off Berthoud Street at one end of the home’s driveway caused a little rubbernecking. Occasionally, people snapped photos as they drove by. One man beeped his horn and shouted, “Goodbye, Tony,” as he passed.

Across the street, people gathered at tables in front of the as-yet-unopened Dairy Queen hoping to catch the procession.

“I’m retired. It wasn’t out of my way,” said Pat Murphy of Pearl River, N.Y., who arrived around 2 p.m. “I wanted to see what was happening.”

The Tangelosi family from Garfield, New Jersey, had been staked out inside their air-conditioned Kia in the Burger King parking lot across the street, hoping for some celebrity sightings. “Maybe I’ll see Robert De Niro,” Angie Tangelosi said.

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Across the road, in a little strip mall, Paul Herdemian, a guy who bears such a striking resemblance to Gandolfini that his friends “bust” him about it, sat behind the counter of his store, The Jeweler’s Workbench, which created the faux bling worn by the gaudy mobsters and mobster wives on “The Sopranos.” In a glass case on the counter, you can see Paulie Walnuts’ black onyx ring, Carmela’s sapphire earrings, and a synthetic ruby ring worn by Gandolfini, whose photo with Herdemian is in a frame on the counter.

“(The Sopranos) was a great thing for this area,” Herdemian said.

So was Gandolfini, whose funeral will no doubt reflect his star status. But on Wednesday, his hometown wake was intentionally small – probably the closest thing to a regular-guy send-off Gandolfini could have ever asked for.