James Gandolfini: No trespassing

Former Sopranos star James Gandolfini spots another friendly face while talking to disabled Iraq war veteran Bryan Anderson during HBO's outdoor party at The W Hotel. Photos: Ed Bark

Privately he's a very generous man. Publicly he sometimes can be his own worst ambassador.

James Gandolfini, just over a month removed from the much-debated finale of The Sopranos, is neither a glad-hander or self-aggrandizer. He goes about his life without calling attention to it. Red carpets and reporters' questions usually don't go down easy with him.

His still very marketable name is the magnet for HBO's powerful Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, a one-hour documentary premiering Sept. 9th. Gandolfini's role is to listen to 10 veterans describe how they've survived their near-fatal wounds. How did the experience affect him?

"It's not about me," he told a roomful of TV critics Thursday while seated amid five veterans missing a total of six limbs. "I'm not trying to be antagonistic in any way, but I'd like the questions directed towards other things besides how it changed me . . . Let's have a different question."

His feelings about the war also are his business.

"Again, I have plenty of personal views on Iraq that don't have a place here today," Gandolfini said.

He wasn't being surly or dismissive, but just himself. This is not a man who flaunts his fame and fortune. But others aren't hesitant to talk behind his back about what a great guy he is.

An HBO publicist who worked on The Sopranos says without prompting that Gandolfini went to her father's, mother's and brother's funerals in the past few years. It meant a helluva lot to her.

On a visit to Kuwait, he was scheduled to spend two hours signing autographs and posing for pictures. But the line of U.S. troops was huge, so Gandolfini stayed for six hours to make sure that everyone got a piece of him. This story is told by another HBO publicist whose word has been gold over the years.

During Thursday night's outdoor HBO party at the W Hotel, your correspondent sees Gandolfini tip a bartender with a small stack of $5 bills. Sure he can afford it, but it wasn't for show. There's no way he knew that anyone was watching.

Gandolfini of course had no entourage or personal publicist in tow. He handles his own affairs without any protective shields surrounding him. And The Sopranos is now dead to him, even if Tony may not be.

Any questions about the series would have been horribly inappropriate during the Alive Day Memories press conference. But as Gandolfini slowly made his way out of a hotel ballroom, it seemed to be worth a shot.

"Would you entertain one question about The Sopranos?"

"No," he said. "Put that to rest."

"Is it a relief to be done with the character?"

"Yes. Thank you very much."

He said this firmly but without any steely-eyed glare. One never feels that Gandolfini is about to erupt into a rage. He simply opts out and leaves the area when questioning becomes too much for him. It's not a contempt for the press. Gandolfini is simply uncomfortable talking about himself under any circumstances.

In Alive Day Memories he mostly just sits and listens as 10 veterans tell him their stories. But he is moved to express his gratitude.

"I want to thank you for everything you've done. I admire you for that," Gandolfini says in the documentary before hugging one of the war's survivors. He did speak to that point during the HBO interview session.

"There were a few times that it was very disturbing (to hear the veterans talk)," he said. "It still is . . . There are stories that make you angry. Yeah, of course, I felt a lot of things. I'm not a trained interviewer. I'm not Barbara Walters or whatever. I don't know, maybe she cries."

Entourage's "Johnny Drama" (Kevin Dillon) looks just a bit . . . tired.

***Earlier Thursday, two members of HBO's new executive branch met TV critics for the first time.

Co-president Richard Plepler said he at first was flummoxed by The Sopranos' sudden blackout while Tony and wife Carmela munched onion rings at a neighborhood diner. He got to see the finale about three weeks before its June 10th premiere.

"I thought that they had withheld from me the final 50 seconds," Plepler said. Now, of course, he's on board.

"I thought David (creator David Chase) did what David was brilliant at doing, which is finding his own voice, doing something that nobody else has done. I thought it was, in many respects, in the highest tradition of the show. It's impossible to tell somebody like David Chase how he should end it."

So what does he think happened to Tony?

"I think David was saying simply, 'Reap what you sow, ' " Plepler said. "This is a guy who is going to live a life of eternal vigilance, looking over his shoulder always, never being sure about his safety or his family's."

"And I don't know, because my TV went out," co-president Michael Lombardo added.

***Those two promised Deadwood movies are getting iffier, Lombardo said earlier. They may hinge on the fate of Deadwood creator David Milch's new John From Cincinnati, which premiered immediately after the Sopranos finale and has been struggling to find much of an audience.

"We will revisit this with David after he's had a bit of a rest and after we know what the future of John is for him," said Lombardo, who noted that none of Deadwood's actors are under contractual hold anymore. "It's doable. It will just be daunting."

A second season of John From Cincinnati will require an "exhausted" Milch to immediately start work on new scripts, Lombardo said.

Plepler said the chances of making any Deadwood movies are 50-50 at the moment.

Noted curmudgeon Larry David enjoys a beverage at the HBO party.

***HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm will return for at least one more 10-episode season -- its sixth -- on Sept. 9th. Star Larry David said he's always agonizing about whether to rest on his laurels and multi-millions.

"Every season that I do is my last season," he said Thursday. "That's the only way I can get through the season. If I thought I had to come back and do it again, I would never do it in the first place."

He has an added financial incentive this time.

"Well, I've just been cut in half. I don't know if you're aware of that," he said when asked whether he could "buy HBO at this point."

He referred to his pending divorce from environmental activist Laurie David, who will be going green in a bigger way with a big hunk of Larry's money.

Should he do a seventh season of Curb, might he and his TV wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), be headed for a fall?

"Too bad you're going to be off the show," David cracked.

"What a fine way to find out," Hines rejoined.

Whatever happens, Larry as Larry will continue to whine and kvetch on Curb. Well, at least that's the popular view.

"Why are you so willing to portray yourself as a schmuck?" a critic asked.

"I'm portraying you, schmucko," David thundered.

Not really.

"I'm Jesus Christ," David clarified. "I'm sacrificing myself for the betterment of humanity."