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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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June 20th, 2013
07:16 PM ET

James Gandolfini loved acting, and loved America's troops

TV’s Tony Soprano was fond of describing his fellow mobsters as 'soliders.' But in real life, actor James Gandolfini had a passion of for the country's fighting men and women.

Gandolfini was not only the beloved leader of the fictional mob family but a celebrated member of Hollywood and military families as well.

For most, he is remembered as the tough, yet tender Tony Soprano in HBO's “The Sopranos,” Winston Baldry in "The Mexican," and a wild thing named Carol in "Where the Wild Things Are."

But for those who have faced the true fear and real drama in war, Gandolfini was an inspired listener.

In his HBO documentaries "Wartorn" and "Alive Day: Home From Iraq," the Emmy-winner who died suddenly on Wednesday in Italy at 51, sat down with American troops to learn their stories.

"It's hard man, because I thought my life was over," Army veteran Dexter Pitts told Gandolfini in one of the documentaries.

Pitts was wounded in Baghdad in 2005, and interviewed by Gandolfini shortly afterward.

"I was just an infantryman. That's all I was. And he took me and took my story and just gave me the spotlight. And that's something a lot of people, a lot of soldiers don't get the opportunity to do. And he just made it all about us," Pitts told CNN.

And the actor continued to lend an ear off camera as well.

"He gave me his personal cell phone number and he told me, 'Hey man if you ever want to talk, just give me a call,'" Pitts said.

Gandolfini was eager to learn and share the issues facing wounded veterans. He volunteered extensively with the Wounded Warriors Project, as well as with the United Service Organizations.

Gandolfini made several trips overseas, including to Afghanistan  last year.

"I'm glad I came out … means a lot to the troops," said Gandolfini.

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