An Untold Story About James Gandolfini: Giving Up The Roles We Play

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“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” Amelia Earheart

My oldest child and James Gandolfini’s son went to pre-school together. I didn’t know James well, but he was always friendly towards everyone and attended many of the birthday parties and events at the school. At the end of the first school year there was a birthday party on the playground for one of the children. The parents throwing the party hired a clown who was trying to keep the children entertained by blowing up balloons and making animals and other figures out of them. The clown seemed totally overwhelmed and mayhem was breaking out among the children. I remember watching as it only got worse until all of the kids were screaming and half of them were crying. The performer was really struggling.  And then I saw James strolling over to the clown and saying, “Let me help you.” James sat down by the balloon machine and started blowing up balloons and passing them to the clown. The minute James started helping the clown, the children calmed down and everyone had a great time. James also helped him with other parts of his performance until the end of the party.

Interestingly, although I also saw the performer struggling, it never occurred to me to try to help. I could rationalize that James understood the performer’s struggle because he was an entertainer, but that would not recognize what really had happened. James had dropped his identity as an Emmy-award winning actor and as a parent, and simply became one human being helping another who was struggling. Upon reflection, I realized that because I couldn’t see beyond my identity as a parent at the party (it was not my role to help entertain the kids), I had created a barrier between myself and the performer that prevented me from offering the performer some help.  I began to understand that my role-playing could block a part of my humanity and not reflect my true identity.

A few days later, I was at court (still practicing law part-time) and I met my adversary on a case. Our clients disliked each other immensely and it had created a very contentious relationship for me and opposing counsel. I had spent hours with this attorney, but that day I realized that I didn’t know anything about him. Sure I was honest, ethical and respectful, but I am not even sure that I had ever asked him how he was or uttered the words, “Have a nice day.” My role there was as an attorney and that is how I was functioning.

So that day when I saw him, I greeted him with a handshake and asked how he was doing. He didn’t even look surprised at my new demeanor and we started to chat like we were friends. It turned out his mother was ill and he was having problems with his daughter. We even lingered after court to speak for a while longer. We never met again in person and settled the case over the phone a few months later. When we got off the phone for the last time he thanked me for speaking to him that day in court. He said to me, “I know this might sound silly but the fact that a total stranger cared about my life that day gave me hope. It made me think that maybe I would find the same kindness from a doctor for my mom or a therapist for my daughter. Sometimes hope is all you need to get through the day.” It’s funny to think that I have worked so hard to develop my theories and philosophies to help people and all I did that day was drop my identity as an attorney. That allowed me to become very human and just listen intently to another who was suffering. It was only my open heart and presence that made a difference.

Many of us get lost in our roles and/or labels in society from our jobs, our families, the education that we have or the religion we were born into. Although these roles are meaningful in our lives, they are not the essence of our true nature. If we allow ourselves to go beyond these roles, there is a place in us that is more openhearted and real. It bonds us all as people and allows us to be present with one another with real understanding, compassion and grace.

Since the day of the party, I don’t get as lost in the roles that I am playing and I try to see the world from an unclouded vantage. It all looks so different when we just show up with love, gratitude and the question “how can I help?” Remembering our humanity brings softness to every situation we face and allows the roles we play to reflect more of our true selves.

I am sure James had no idea that day the ripples his kind act towards another human had for me. I am thankful to have been the witness to his kind spirit reaching out to another. MAYBE that kind spirit was James’ best role.

RIP James Gandolfini