This is the story of a James Gandolfini role that almost was …
Less than a week before he died unexpectedly at age 51, Gandolfini met with a team at HBO to discuss barbeque ribs, North Korea, and a true tale so strange it could only be told as comedy.
The film was called Eating With the Enemy, and the Emmy-winning star of The Sopranos would have played a big-mouthed New Jersey restaurant owner who fancies himself a rogue international diplomat and gets ensnared in the tense nuclear stand-off between Washington D.C. and the reclusive Pyongyang government.
Bobby Egan is a self-described “ribs restaurant owner, high school dropout, former drug addict and roofing contractor from Hackensack” who came to know some representatives of North Korea through his Cubby’s BBQ shack in the 1990s. He ended up bedeviling, then helping, the CIA and FBI, injected with truth serum by suspicious North Korean agents, and relishing his role as a global troublemaker/peacemaker.
Pat Healy (pictured above), a screenwriter and actor known for the films Compliance, Great World of Sound and The Innkeepers, was penning the script, based on the 2010 book by Egan and journalist Kurt Pitzer.
Healy told EW about his last encounter with Gandolfini before he left on his trip to Italy, where he died yesterday from an apparent heart attack:
“I have been writing the film Eating With the Enemy for HBO Films for the past two years for Jim to star in. We finally did a reading of the script for the first time in March. As an actor, I have been a fan of Jim Gandolfini’s for 20 years. As a screenwriter, to watch him have to stop reading your words because he’s laughing so hard that tears are streaming down his face… I can’t think of anything better.
“We all had a meeting at HBO on Friday. He was getting really excited about doing it and everyone at HBO, including Len Amato, the head of HBO Films, was excited because he was excited.
“They all loved him so much. He was going to maybe do another series for them [the thriller Criminal Justice] and was worried people would be sick of seeing him on HBO. I assured him that in a million years that could never be possible. But that’s how modest he was. He was really worried about it in an adorable way.
“So I said goodbye and told him to have a great trip to Italy. I extended my hand to shake and he embraced me in a big warm hug. It made me feel so good.
“That’s the last time I saw him and how I’ll always remember him.”
What becomes of Eating With the Enemy now? That’s unclear, though obviously the loss of Gandolfini is devastating. Most likely the team will need to take some time to breathe, rethink, and – of course – mourn the death of their friend and collaborator.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” says Healy, who was in the middle of a rewrite to include Gandolfini’s notes and suggestions. He planned to deliver the new script when the actor returned from his travels in a few weeks.
After years of work on the project, naturally Healy hopes it continues in some form. If HBO continues to back it, the film will need to land a director who can recruit a new star. “Although I can’t imagine anyone better than Jim,” Healy adds.
That’s part of losing someone who was not just a great actor, but one of a kind.