For most people, James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano, the tortured crime boss he portrayed on the seminal TV show The Sopranos. But in his off hours, the intensely private actor was—among many other things, presumably—a luxury watch wonk.
In a story entitled “The Last Ride of James Gandolfini,” in the December issue of GQ, watchmaker Michael Kobold, founder of Kobold Expedition Tools in Pittsburgh, talks about his close relationship with Gandolfini, which began in 2003 when the actor called the company to inquire about a watch.
At the time, Kobold was answering his small firm’s calls personally. The voice on the other end of the line “was gruff and had what I assumed to be a New York accent,” he recalled in the GQ piece. “In my mind, this meant he was probably a cop. But when I offered him my standard 10 percent law-enforcement discount, the guy laughed. ‘I’m not a cop,’ he barked. ‘I’m an actor.’ He said he was on a show called The Sopranos. I asked if this meant he was in a musical. ‘Basically,’ he said, ‘it’s a show about a fat guy, and I’m the fat guy.’”
Kobold told GQ that he hand-delivered a watch to Gandolfini a few days later, and found the actor “slumped in a chair with scowl.” When the actor asked Kobold who he was, the watchmaker said, “You told me to look for a fat guy.” The actor laughed, and a friendship was born.
Gandolfini was so enamored with Kobold watches, he bought 450 of them—including 40 made of gold—for the cast and crew of The Sopranos as farewell presents during the filming the show’s final season.
The retail value, said Kobold, was more than $2 million.
The infamous James Gandolfini Kobold ad (photo courtesy of Kobold Expedition Tools)
But as the years passed, the relationship between the two men became more personal than professional (Gandolfini’s family asked Kobold to speak to the press on their behalf after he died). “Mostly what we did was talk,” recalled Kobold, “and mostly what we talked about was my family, my company, and my love life. Jim took great pleasure in giving unsolicited advice. If I was having difficulties with a girlfriend, Jim’s apartment was a place of refuge, sometimes for a few days and on other occasions for several weeks or more.”
But the watchmaker also consulted with Gandolfini on prototypes, and “when none of my watches really fit his oversize wrist, he designed his own,” he told GQ. “It’s called the Seal, and he’s wearing it in an ad that sold me a lot of watches. It’s a shot of Jim smirking while flipping off the camera—really, he was flipping me off because I was bugging him—and ran with the line, ‘Even James Gandolfini thinks Kobold is No. 1.’”
The ad was the priciest the brand had ever run and earned Kobold some angry phones calls, including one from a father who was ticked that his 7-year-old son had seen it. Gandolfini, ever the straight shooter, replied personally to that one: “Dear Mr. Smith,” his letter read, “If your 7-year-old son reads The Economist, you have nothing to worry about. Regards, James Gandolfini.”