TODAY   |  June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini dead at 51

The actor who will forever be associated with his role as mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series “The Sopranos” succumbed to a suspected heart attack in Rome Wednesday at only 51. He is survived by his wife and two children. NBC’s Mike Taibbi reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> about james gandolfini is stunning. i mean, 51 years old. he is being remembered this morning as a husband, as a father. of course, a very talented actor. that role, tony sop plan know, was groundbreaking. a role that earned him three emmy awards , according to a lot of people, helped usher in a brand new era of tv.

>> he died of a heart attack in rome where he had been vacationing ahead of a scheduled film appearance in sicily. get the latest from claudio lavanga. claudio , good morning to you. what can you tell us?

>> reporter: good morning, savannah. i'm standing here in front of the hotel where james gandolfini suffered a heart attack last night. here in rome , the hotel is the bosco hotel in one of the main squares. told by the director of the hotel that the actor fell unwell in his hotel room and fell in the bathroom of the hotel room about 10:00 local time last night. that's about 2:00 p.m . eastern time . now, he was in the room with his son, michael, a 13-year-old son who called out for help immediately. the hotel staff rushed out to the room and found him lining the floor. they say that he was still alive then but it was quite clear that he needed immediate medical attention . that's why they called the ambulance. the ambulance arrived shortly after. and when the ambulance arrived, the director told us the sister of gandolfini , who was vacationing with the family here in rome as well, arrived with it and they all rushed to the hospital. but the hospital tell us, which is about three minutes drive from here, told us that he was pronounced dead upon arrival, savannah.

>> claudio , i will take it. thank you very much. claudio lavanga in rome this morning. nbc's mike taibbi is in los angeles with a closer look now at the life and the career of james gandolfini . mike, good morning to you.

>> reporter: good morning, matt. you know, you can make the argument, as you said, many have in the modern history of dramatic television, there's never been a more important actor and role than james gandolfini as tony soprano . when cable television was freed of long-imposed limits on language and content, tony soprano roared right up to those limits and redefined television as we had known t as new jersey mob boss , tony soprano , james gandolfini ruled his fifedom ruthlessly.

>> if you can quote the rules, you can obey them. you hear me?

>> reporter: in his personal life , possessing a code of honor with impoounity, he was flawed and painfully human.

>> be right down.

>> reporter: in remembering gandolfini , hbo said it was his humanness, only the good and humble side of it that made him a beloved member of our family, special man, a great talent, who treated everyone, no matter their title or position with equal respect. when it was learned he had died suddenly on the way to a film festival in cisly, receipt action was a mixture of shock and unbridened a mir racial. from "sopranos" castmates, including frank vincent .

>> very talented and friendly and just a guy you you want to put your arm around and hug him, like he was a big bear .

>> reporter: from fans whose ardor for the actor around his iconic role has not faded.

>> absolutely sad because i feel like i grew up with him. like i knew him.

>> he is amazing. he was amazing in everything he did.

>> reporter: and from critics, like ellen, who saw hbo's "the sopranos," fuelled by gandolfini 's searing title character , as a breakthrough that changed television.

>> tony soprano redefined the way we thought about tv leading men. we had never watched a show and loved a show about a character like this before and a lot of that came from what james gandolfini did in a performance as a monster who we somehow liked.

>> reporter: this wasn't the actor's only role, of course. long before he exploded on the screen as tony sop plan know, he had worked the broadway stage and had played a variety of vulnerable movie tough guys. the hitman quentin tarantino wrote into "true romance" and the stuntman turned muscle for hire in the film version of elmore leonard 's "get shorty."

>> i don't work for you no more, i came here to tell you to your face so we don't got no misunderstanding.

>> reporter: after the "the sopranos" ended in 2007 , gandolfini never stopped working. in "the taking of pelham 1, 2, 3" against denzel washington and the cia director in last year's "zero dark thirty." he learned to fully appreciate the lives and burdens of american troops fighting in irranch it became a documentary he discussed with brian williams in a segment that aired on "today."

>> i feel that some people think they are disposable people or something. they just don't pay attention to this.

>> reporter: because he paid attention, he hoped his public would, too. and then, in a way like the character with who he will always be identified, his time ended suddenly, a black screen out of nowhere, a series tony soprano over. unforgettable character. and now, the actor who made him that way. gandolfini is survived by his wife, deborahly. n, 8-month-old daughter and his, michael, from their first marriage.

>> thank you very much. federico