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'Sopranos' Star James Gandolfini Dies at 51

James Gandolfini Horizontal - H 2013
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James Gandolfini

UPDATE: The actor, most recently seen in "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," died of a possible heart attack.

James Gandolfini, who made his mark on television history as the troubled crime boss on HBO’s smash drama The Sopranos, has died, according to HBO. He was 51.

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Gandolfini died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack in Rome. He was on vacation and set to participate Saturday in an event at the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily with actress Marisa Tomei and Italian director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness). 

The stocky Gandolfini played New Jersey mafia kingpin Tony Soprano for six seasons from 1999-2007, winning three Emmys for best actor in a drama in consecutive years (out of six nominations total). The show was a linchpin of the premium cable network, luring millions of subscribers.

He recently had been working on the HBO seven-part “limited event” series Criminal Justice, an adaptation of Peter Moffat's 2008 BBC crime entry. The network at first passed on the drama, but in the wake of strong interest from rivals, decided to move forward in May. Gandolfini plays Jack Stone, a downtrodden jailhouse attorney who frequents police stations for clients.

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"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family," HBO said in a statement. "He was special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility."

Gandolfini's most recent theatrical appearance was in the May 7 release Violet & Daisy, in which he played a guy who wants to be killed by two teenage hitwomen (Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan). 

He has completed a role in Nicole Holofcener's next film, Enough Said, which Fox Searchlight plans to release in 2014. The movie stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorced woman who strikes up a friendship with another woman, played by Catherine Keener, who helps her restore her self-confidence. Louis-Dreyfus' character then falls in love with a man, played by Gandolfini, who turns out to be her new friend's ex-husband.

"I'm heartbroken," the director said. "He was a lovely man, and I was honored to know him."

Gandolfini also has a role in Animal Rescue, an upcoming crime drama also starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace that is set for release in 2014.

His film résume also includes such films as The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Welcome to the Rileys (2010), Killing Them Softly (2012), Not Fade Away (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and this year’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

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Before The Sopranos, Gandolfini often appeared as a heavy. He played a hit man in True Romance (1993) and stood out in such films as Get Shorty (1995), Mr. Wonderful (1993), Terminal Velocity (1994), Crimson Tide (1995), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), She’s So Lovely (1997) and The Mighty (1998).

An Italian-American, Gandolfini was born on Sept. 18, 1961, in Westwood, N.J. His father was a bricklayer and later the head custodian at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic High School, and his mother served lunches at the school. Italian was spoken in their home.

Gandolfini graduated from Park Ridge High School in 1979 and earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies at Rutgers University, where he worked as a bouncer at an on-campus pub. He was a visible supporter of the school for years.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez tweeted that Gandolfini was “a proud NJ native and Rutgers alum; an actor for the ages.”

The Sopranos, created by David Chase, debuted on Jan. 10, 1999, and ran for 86 episodes, garnering 21 Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes along the way. It is considered one of the masterpieces of American popular culture and one of the most financially successful series in TV history. At its ratings peak in season four, the series attracted more than 18 million viewers and later aired in syndication on A&E.

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Gandolfini was invited to audition for the part of Tony Soprano after casting director Susan Fitzgerald saw him play a brutal woman-beating mob enforcer in True Romance. His womanizing, hard-drinking, vengeful character in The Sopranos often had to balance family life with the mob; in early seasons, he was hounded by his overbearing mother and suffered from panic attacks that sometimes caused him to lose consciousness. At times, Tony showed a gentle side.

In a statement, Chase called Gandolfini “a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that.

“He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” Chase continued. “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. … He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”

Said former HBO Entertainment head Chris Albrecht, who greenlighted the series: “Jimmy was the spiritual core of our Sopranos family, and I am stunned at this devastating loss. He was a great talent, but an even better man.”

Gandolfini returned to HBO later in 2007 as the executive producer of the documentary special, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, a production from his company Attaboy Films. He produced another documentary for the network, Wartorn: 1861-2010, about the invisible wounds of war.

Gandolfini later executive produced the HBO telefilm Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012), starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.

On the stage, he earned a Tony Award nomination for best actor for his role in 2009’s God of Carnage opposite Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden and earlier appeared on Broadway in On the Waterfront with David Morse.

He spoke about The Sopranos coming to an end in a 2007 interview.

“It’s been a great opportunity, but I don’t have much trepidation about it ending,” he told Vanity Fair. “I think it’s more than time. Part of the fun of acting is the research, finding out about other people. As much as I’ve explored this guy, I don’t know what else to really do with him. I’ve been in one place for 10 years. That’s enough. It’s time for me to do other things.”

The actor remembered going to a boxing match at New York's Madison Square Garden with some of the cast. “I walked in, there was a stampede,” he says. “The whole crowd started chanting Toneee! Toneee! My manager was in from L.A., and he was like, ‘Holy f—!’' I said to him, ‘You better be nice to me or I'll ask these guys to kill you.’”

Survivors include his wife of four years, former model Deborah Lin, who gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Liliana, in October. He also has a teenage son, Michael, from a previous marriage to Marcy Wudarski, and two sisters, Leta Gandolfini and Johanna Antonacci.