‘Sopranos’ star James Gandolfini dead at 51

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James Gandolfini at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

Actor James Gandolfini, best known for his role as crime boss Tony Soprano in HBO’s hit drama “The Sopranos,” died today of an apparent heart attack while vacationing in Italy. He was 51.

The Emmy Award-winning actor began in the theater in his native New Jersey before moving to films with appearances “True Romance,” “Mr. Wonderful,” “Crimson Tide” and “Get Shorty.”

But he became a household name in 1999 when he was cast in “The Sopranos,” HBO’s groundbreaking hit focused on a tough-talking mob struggling to manage both his crime family and his real family. The series became a cult favorite, continuing its successful run until 2007. Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award.

“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family,” according to a statement from HBO. “He was a 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. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us.”

David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” called Gandolfini a “genius.”

“Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that,” Chase said. “He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. 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.”

After “Sopranos” ended, Gandolfini went on to act in more films, including “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Killing Them Softly,” “In the Loop” and “Not Fade Away.”

He most recently appeared as director of the CIA in the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” and appeared in this year’s comedy, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, whom he married in 2008. He had a son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski.

KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis discussed Gandolfini’s career with Michael Schneider, LA bureau chief for TV Guide:

Here’s a compilation of some of Tony Soprano’s greatest moments: