UPPER WEST SIDE — Thousands of black-clad mourners flooded St. John the Divine Thursday morning for the emotional funeral of James Gandolfini, the "Sopranos" star who died last week.
Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi and Mike Imperioli, co-stars on the HBO hit series, exchanged long hugs under a bright sun outside the cathedral on Amsterdam Avenue, before heading inside to pay their respects.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shook several hands and received a resounding ovation as he entered the church to remember his close friend from the Garden State.
The boldface names were among the thousands of fans, friends and loved ones who came to bid farewell to the burly, warm-hearted actor best known for his role as a short-tempered mob boss on the groundbreaking show.
"My husband was an honest, kind and loving man," said Gandolfini's widow, Deborah Lin, who married Gandolfini in 2008 and has a 9-month-old daughter with him, according to the New York Daily News.
Gandolfini died of a heart attack June 19 while vacationing in Rome. He was 51.
The funeral, at the 121,000-square-foot Morningside Heights church, near West 112th Street, the largest Gothic cathedral in the United States, began at 10 a.m. and was led by the Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski.
The reverend said the gregarious star did the world a service by portraying humanity's dark side, but that "his family and friends have said to me that he did that at a price."
Gandolfini, Rev. Kowalski said, knew that "the darkness can never overwhelm the light."
He was also a man who cared deeply for others, he said, noting that the actor would stop the car if he heard about a cause or person on the radio he thought he could help with, so that he could jot it down.
David Chase, the creator and executive producer of "The Sopranos," also remembered his friend's generosity to his fans and his teddy-bear like personality. He gave his eulogy in the form of a letter, beginning "Dear James," and ending with "Love, David."
Chase said he was called upon by Gandolfini's family to share his views of him as an actor and an artist — but he quickly veered into much more personal territory.
"You told me I want to be a man, that's all," Chase said. "The paradox of you as a man is that I always felt with you I was seeing a boy... because you were boyish."
This quality allowed him to be a great actor, Chase continued, because the emotions he portrayed "were just simple emotions, straight and pure."
Their relationship grew as the years went on, Chase said.
"I said before that you were my brother...I've always felt that we are brothers," he added.
That fellowship was marked by their mutual love of "family, work, people in all their imperfections, food, alcohol, talking, rage, and a desire to bring the whole structure crashing down," he said.
Long-time friend Susan Aston described Gandolfini as "a master," whose vulnerability "allowed us all to feel connected to him." Accepting when he fell short was something he always strove for, she said.
Aston recalled performing with Gandolfini in the 1980s in Greenwich Village and how he'd say to her: "'What's the worst that can happen? We suck," — a memory that prompted lots of laughter from an audience that knew better.
She said while he was always passionate about his career, his true joy in life remained his family, even turning down a role this summer so he could vacation with his kids.
"He said it was more important than it's ever been to spend the summer on the Jersey Shore and in California," Aston said. "He said, 'I don't want to lose any time with Lily and Michael.'"
The service unleashed a wave of emotions in many of the mourners. At one point, family friend Thomas Richardson asked everyone in attendance to hug — a tribute to Gandolfini's warm bear hugs that were often too tight, he remembered.
"Would you please stand and grab the people next to you and think of Jim and hug and hug people tight and hug your loved ones too long?" Richardson asked the audience. "For it is in hugging that we are loved."
Gandolfini, an Emmy award-winning who lived in TriBeCa, got his start in a 1992 revival of a "A Streetcar Named Desire."
His role as Tony Soprano, however, elevated him to star status. He earned three Emmys for the role.
Aston said it was difficult to imagine going forward without her close friend.
"How will we live the rest of our lives without James, Jimmy, Jim, Buck?" she asked, her voice faltering and fighting back tears. "James, my big teddy bear friend, I miss you."
Several attendees, members of the public who lined up early to pay tribute to the star, said they were most moved by Chase's remembrance.
"It humanized [Gandolfini] for us," said New Yorker Stephen Brennan, 33, who said the service "was befitting of the man."
Other fans spoke as though they knew Gandolfini personally.
"I loved that guy. He was phenomenal. He was a great person," said Vigny Deriscar, 31.
Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Gualtieri on "The Sopranos," paused to share his thoughts with fans outside the funeral.
"There were a lot of people who loved him," he said of the thousands of fans who had attended the service. "I love him. I've had a rough day. It was a rough day," he said, trembling slightly.
An HBO representative said burial site information is being kept private.