James Gandolfini, R.I.P.: My one degree of separation from late Sopranos icon

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Like every fan of The Sopranos, the HBO landmark that was named the best written TV show ever by the Writers Guild of America earlier this month, I was saddened by news that actor James Gandolfini died yesterday of a heart attack while visiting Italy.

This loss called to mind my strange connection to the TV icon. Turns out I stole the voice of the man who'd go on to win three Emmys during his film debut. Really. Continue for the very strange story.

I first told this story in 2010, shortly after learning about it. As I noted at the time, the film in question is Shock! Shock! Shock!, a 1987 micro-budgeted oddity made by Arn McConnell and Todd Rutt, good friends from my hometown of Grand Junction, who had relocated to New York City.

The description on the movie's IMDB page offers a good indication of its cheeky style. The passage reads:

It begins with the most evil cry, deep from the twisted shadows of the night. Then, its laughter, like some insane dog ringing in your ears, it comes with the flaming jaws of hungry horror. Oh yes, it hungers...for you! Run! Run! But there is no escape for you who will see the terrible true story of a man caught in the icy fingers of Shock! Shock! SHOCK!

The flick was released by Rhino Home Video in 1988 -- quite an accomplishment given that McConnell and Rutt shot it on 8 millimeter (the sort of film your grandparents used for home movies) and added the sound later. And as a lark, they asked me to record the voice of an orderly who gets knocked out by the star of the show, Brad Schwartz. (Brad, who became a pal of mine, too, was credited as Brad Isaac.)

Who played the orderly? I found out when McConnell posted this note on his Facebook page in January 2010:

I watched [Shock! Shock! Shock!] for the first time in 12 years last night at the request of a friend who hadn't seen it. Saw "Jim Gandolfini" in the credits as the orderly and recalled that actor was a friend of our lead actor. Looked at the scene again and thought, "Could be." Contacted Todd Rutt today, who contacted Brad Isaac, our lead actor, who said yes, he and the future Tony Soprano had met in a theatre class, had been good friends for a number of years and acted like it was no big deal.

Shortly thereafter, a video of the scene in question was shared on YouTube, complete with a helpful graphic to point out Gandolfini. Here's a screen capture:

When you check out the clip below, you'll no doubt notice my incredibly stiff line readings: Even my "oof!" sounds phony.

It's not false modesty to say McConnell and Rutt would have been way better off letting Gandolfini speak for himself. Somehow, though, this indignity didn't hamper the actor's subsequent career, which, in addition to The Sopranos, included great supporting work in films such as 1995's Get Shorty and 2009's In the Loop, as well as appearances in high-profile projects like last year's Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty. While he was strongly identified with Tony Soprano, he seemed poised for a very long and worthy career that ended much too soon.

I'm fortunate to have had even a tiny association with him -- one that, all these years later, is still, well, shocking.

Here's a CBS report about Gandolfini's passing, followed by the aforementioned clip from Shock! Shock! Shock!

More from our Television & Film archive: "James Gandolfini's film debut, with his voice dubbed by... me?"

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