James Gandolfini brought his hard-working ethic and the sensitivity of a sad child to his most memorable role as Mob boss Tony Soprano on the hit television series The Sopranos, friends recalled at the actor's funeral in New York on Thursday.

"You were a good boy," David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, said during the late-morning ceremony at New York's Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, one of the largest churches in the city. A private wake was held in New Jersey on Wednesday.

One of four speakers at the funeral, Chase shared his memories in the form of a letter, written in present tense, to Gandolfini.

Gandolfini once told him: "You know what I want to be? A man. That's all. I want to be a man," Chase recalled, adding that he marvelled at the revelation, since the stage and screen star represented a man so many others wanted to be.

On the other hand, Chase noted that in watching the New Jersey actor, he always felt he was seeing a young boy.

"A sad boy, amazed and confused," he said. "You could see it in your eyes. That's why you were a great actor."

Gandolfini's widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, and two family friends also spoke during the service, which drew a crowd of prominent mourners, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former talk show host Dick Cavett, actor Steve Buscemi and Sopranos castmates Edie Falco, Joe Pantoliano, Dominic Chianese, Steve Schirripa, Aida Turturro, Vincent Curatola and Michael Imperioli.

"He worked hard," noted Susan Aston, Gandolfini's longtime dialogue coach and collaborator. 

"He was disciplined. He studied his roles and did his homework," but when the cameras rolled, his work was an act of faith that carried him to an uncharted place, she said.

Organizers prepared about 1,500 seats at the funeral, with members of the public admitted after the invited guests.

"I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times and he was just lovely. So warm," said mourner Robin Eckstein. 

"As soon as he knew you were a friend of a friend, you were his friend, too." 

Died suddenly in Italy

Gandolfini, 51, died of a heart attack last week while vacationing in Italy. The actor had been headed to Sicily to appear at the Taormina Film Festival, which paid tribute to him Saturday.

Broadway theatres also honoured the entertainer by dimming their lights briefly Wednesday night.

Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards for his role in the HBO drama The Sopranos. The series premiered in the U.S. in 1999 and ended in 2007. It's still in syndication.

Gandolfini worked steadily in film and on stage after the series ended. He earned a 2009 Tony Award nomination for his role in the celebrated production of God of Carnage.

Gandolfini and his wife Deborah, who were married in 2008, have a daughter, Liliana, born last year. The actor and his former wife, Marcy, have a teenage son, Michael.

With files from The Associated Press