LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - James Gandolfini, the burly actor best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of a conflicted New Jersey mob boss in the groundbreaking TV series "The Sopranos," died on Wednesday while vacationing in Rome, HBO said.
Gandolfini, 51, died of a possible heart attack, HBO spokeswoman Mara Mikialian told Reuters.
Since "The Sopranos" ended its six-season run in June 2007, Gandolfini has appeared in a number of big-screen roles, including "Zero Dark Thirty," a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone."
At the time of his death, Gandolfini had been working on an upcoming HBO series titled "Criminal Justice." HBO declined to elaborate on the series other than to say that it was in development and that Gandolfini was a part of it.
"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family," the network said in a statement. "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."
Gandolfini broke ground with his signature portrait of Tony Soprano, the head of a fictional New Jersey mob family, in "The Sopranos."
As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini created a gangster different from any previously seen in American television or film. He was capable of killing enemies with his own hands but was prone to panic attacks. He loved his wife, Carmela, played by Edie Falco, and was a doting father, but he carried on a string of extramarital affairs.
He regularly saw a therapist, portrayed by Lorraine Bracco, to work out his anxiety problems and issues with his mother.
By the start of the show's final season, Gandolfini suggested he was ready to move on to more gentle roles once his TV mobster days were over.
"I'm too tired to be a tough guy or any of that stuff anymore," he said. "We pretty much used all that up in this show."
The program, which earned Gandolfini three Emmy Awards as best lead actor in a drama series, was considered by many critics at the time the finest drama to have aired on U.S. television.
The series was a major factor in establishing HBO, a pay-cable network once focused on presentations of feature films, as a powerhouse of original dramatic television and in shifting the kind of sophisticated storytelling once reserved for the big screen to TV.
The show won the Emmy as best drama series in 2004 and again in 2007 after its final season. The series concluded with a final episode that strongly suggested Tony was about to be murdered before abruptly ending mid-scene, cutting from a shot of Gandolfini's face to a blank screen.
His role also paved the way for a parade of popular prime-time shows built around profoundly flawed characters and anti-heroes, from "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" to "Mad Men" and "Nurse Jackie."
David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," paid tribute to his former star in a statement remembering him as "a genius" and "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," Chase recounted.
A New Jersey native, Gandolfini preceded his career as a performer by working as a truck driver, bouncer and nightclub manager in New York City before he went to an acting class with a friend and got hooked.
"I'd also never been around actors before," he told Time magazine, "and I said to myself, 'These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.'"
Gandolfini began his career in theater in New York, making his Broadway debut in a 1992 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Born in Westwood, New Jersey, Gandolfini was raised in a working-class, Italian-American family by a father who was a bricklayer and high school custodian and a mother who worked in a school cafeteria.
In an interview on the television program "Inside the Actors Studio," he said his parents spoke Italian in the home when they did not want the children to understand them.
"So they didn't teach it to my sisters or myself," he said.
Gandolfini had a son, Michael, with his first wife, Marcy Wudarski, whom he divorced in 2002. In 2008, he married model Deborah Lin, who gave birth to a daughter, Liliana, in 2012.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Additional reporting by Bill Trott, Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Richwine; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)