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James Gandolfini dead, actor best known as Tony Soprano was 51

James Gandolfini attends the after party for a

James Gandolfini attends the after party for a screening of The Weinstein Company's "Killing Them Softly" hosted by The Cinema Society With Men's Health And DeLeon in Manhattan. (Nov. 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty

James Gandolfini, who redefined popular culture's idea of a leading man with his harrowing portrayal of Tony Soprano on "The Sopranos," has died while on vacation in Italy. His death was confirmed by HBO, which aired his hit series for eight years. Gandolfini was 51.

According to a statement from HBO, "We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. 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." No official cause of death was given.

"He was a genius," a statement from "Sopranos" creator David Chase said. "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. 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."

Best known for playing conflicted mob boss/family man Tony Soprano from 1999 to 2007, Gandolfini also had appeared on stage and in dozens of movie roles. These included playing the mayor of New York in 2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," and more recently in the 2012 thriller based on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty." One of his last projects was adapting a French Canadian single-camera comedy for CBS, "Taxi 22," through his Attaboy Productions.

But Tony Soprano was the role of a lifetime, a character who became a profound and powerful cultural force and that made "The Sopranos" perhaps the finest series in television history.

By most accounts, success never seemed to change him. A lunchpail actor if ever there was one, he made close friends with the crew at Silvercup Studios in Queens, and turned out to be one of their biggest supporters, in pay or workplace disputes. Colleagues often described him as humble and gruff, a loving bear of a man who never severed ties with his working-class heritage or his Park Ridge, N.J., hometown.

But he was also ambivalent about his career-defining role, for which he won three outstanding lead actor in a drama series Emmys (2000, 2001 and 2003). He recently said in an Associated Press interview he didn't "regain" himself as an actor until his 2009 stage role in the Tony-winning "God of Carnage," in which he played half of a Brooklyn couple engaged in a fight with another couple over their children. "It really grounded me more as an actor again," he said. "Then I could go off and try different things."

After the series concluded with a famous -- some would say infamous -- fade to black in 2007, leaving millions wondering whether Tony had lived or died, Gandolfini effectively left television for such small films as "In the Loop," a political satire, and "Welcome to the Rileys," which co-starred Kristen Stewart. He voiced the Wild Thing Carol in the animated 2009 film, "Where the Wild Things Are."

The Rutgers graduate said he had initially been drawn to acting as a release, a way to dispel anger, though he admitted that "I don't know what exactly I was angry about." He added that with the roles he chooses, "I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point. I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much anymore."

According to reports, he was in transit to the Taormina Film Festival and was expected there Thursday. He planned an onstage conversation with director Gabriele Muccino on Saturday.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, an 8-month-old daughter, Lilliana, and a son, Michael, from a previous marriage. With AP

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