WEIRTON - Actor James Gandolfini, who died of an apparent heart attack in Rome Wednesday, was "a gentleman" in his dealings with the general public, local resident Ted Dragisich said.
Dragisich said he got to know the actor a decade ago when he was working at Mountaineer Racetrack, Casino and Resort and the cast of "The Sopranos," Gandolfini's hit HBO show, came in for a public appearance.
"I had to pick them up at the airport in a limousine," Dragisich said. "I remember sitting there waiting for him to come down the escalator ... people gathered around him. When he got to the bottom, I figured he'd come straight to me and get in the limo, but so many people were waiting, when he got to the bottom he stopped and signed autographs for everybody who wanted autographs and took pictures with everybody who wanted pictures. I'd (expected) he would be something he wasn't, he turned out to be one of the nicest human beings I had the privilege of meeting in my life."
He said he hit it off with Gandolfini as well as his co-star, Steven Schirripa, who played Bobby Baccalieri. The following year, he accompanied former MTR CEO Ted Arneault and Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to Radio City Music Hall in New York City to watch the 2003 season premiere with an A-list crowd.
"I handed the usher the tickets and he escorted us all the way up to the seventh row," Dragisich said. "They were coded tickets - the usher told us we were the guests of James Gandolfini, and those were our seats. There I was sitting next to Peter Boyle, the actor. Behind us was Dennis Leary, the actor - he's a big hockey fan, so naturally he came over and started talking to Mario. Then they did introductions, and there were so many movie stars in the audience, but they were about 20 rows back from us. And afterward, we were invited to a party at Rockefeller Center."
He said Gandolfini invited them to several events in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and always, "he was very outgoing, very nice. He couldn't have been nicer to people."
"Every time I've been around James Gandolfini, he was the perfect gentleman. I never saw him (be anything but) a gentleman," he said. "He was just a completely nice man."
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)