Family and friends gather in New York for James Gandolfini's funeral

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Purring SUVs with tinted windows (and New Jersey plates) deliver mourners in sun glasses and boxy dark suits to the steps of St John the Divine Cathedral in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. Girlfriends or wives are in narrow black dresses and teetering heels – all reasons already to think you are at a mob funeral.

Some just look the part. But of course they do. “Look, there’s Vito, there’s Vito,” a lady calls out from across the street as one tightly tailored gentleman labours upwards to the West Door. She has spotted Vito Spatafore or rather the actor who played him in the HBO TV series, The Sopranos, Joseph Gannascoli.

This is an Italian funeral and a New Jersey funeral, but it’s not a mafia one. This is the final farewell to the actor, James Gandolfini, not a freaky fan convention for one of the biggest television series there ever was. But as a soloist sings Ave Maria and family members approach to put their lips to the coffin, it is hard to keep television fantasy and grieving reality apart. Look there’s Paulie.  There’s Tony’s sister.

Mr Gandolfini, who died from a heart attack last week in Rome aged just 51, was familiar with the phenomenon. He and Tony Soprano, the gruff yet vulnerable mob boss he played in the series, were just that much intertwined.  Of course, he had tried to break the link playing other roles – in ‘God of Carnage’ on Broadway or as former CIA Director Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty – but he didn’t quite succeed.

It is a measure of the respect and the love he earned that his funeral is here in the largest cathedral in New York. It has drawn hundreds, and not just the famous.  Renata Latimer, 67, had no direct connection but came because the Sopranos had got her through hip surgery convalescence. The scenes she recalls most fondly were Tony’s sessions with his therapist played by Lorraine Bracco. “He was so human,” she says.

But the famous have come too. Chris Christie looks like a former cast member but is in fact the Governor of New Jersey. John Turturro, the director is here to pay respects and so are actors Steve Buscemi and Alec Baldwin.  And, yes, near the front is Ms Bracco. Of four eulogies one comes from David Chase, creator of the Sopranos.  He can’t start with a joke as perhaps he should, he says. “I am too sad and full of despair”.

But, beginning simply with “Dear Jimmy”, he offers a theory about what had made Mr Gandolfini so special. “I saw in you a sad boy, amazed and confused,” he said looking to his old friend under the cloth-draped coffin. “You were a great actor because of the boy who was inside, it was the child reacting.”

His acting coach for his whole career, Susan Aston, recalled one of her last conversations with him when he explained why he had turned down a movie offer that would have filmed this summer. “I didn’t want to lose any of that time with Michael and Lilli,” he told her.  He meant to be on the Jersey Shore right now with his two children, and his wife, Deborah Lin, before it was too late.

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