(RNN) - James Gandolfini, who played one of television's most memorable characters, has died in Rome, Italy after suffering a heart attack.
Home Box Office officials confirmed that Gandolfini, who played gangster Tony Soprano on HBO's classic crime drama The Sopranos, died from a heart attack while vacationing before attending a film festival in Italy. He was 51. The New Jersey born actor was to attend the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily this weekend.
HBO issued a statement confirming his death to Variety.
"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," HBO's statement read.
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos released the following, moving statement about his friend's death:
"He was 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. 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."
HBO released another official statement via Facebook saying, "We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. James Gandolfini 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."
Born Sept. 18, 1961 in Westwood, N.J., Gandolfini's breakthrough role came in a memorable bit part as a hitman in Tony Scott's 1993 hit film True Romance, which was produced by Quentin Tarentino. He was still a little-known actor when Sopranos creator David Chase insisted that Gandolfini be cast in the star role of Tony Soprano when The Sopranos debuted in 1999.
Gandolfini went on to become a Hollywood icon, winning three Emmys and a Golden Globe in the six seasons he starred as the hulking, emotionally troubled mob boss.
He appeared in multiple films, among them Get Shorty, The Mexican, All the King's Men and most recently in Zero Dark Thirty. He also starred in Cinema Verite, another HBO production.
He was the producer of Alive Day Memoirs: Home from Iraq, an HBO documentary in which he interviewed 10 recently wounded veterans in a moving exploration of the effect war and violence had on their lives.
He lived in Greenwich Village and made news in 2010 for helping dig a stranded driver out of a car trapped by a blizzard. He also participated in the Concert for Superstorm Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden last year.
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, a former model and longtime girlfriend whom he married in 2008 at the Central Union Church in Honolulu, her hometown. The couple had a baby daughter, Liliana, in October 2012. He is also survived by a son, Michael, from a previous marriage.