LOS ANGELES/ROME (Reuters) - Doctors in Italy battled for 40 minutes to save the life of James Gandolfini, the burly actor best known for his Emmy-winning role as a mob boss in the TV series "The Sopranos," before pronouncing him dead on Wednesday at age 51.
Gandolfini, whose performance as Tony Soprano made him a household name and ushered in a new era of American television drama, was vacationing in Rome and had been scheduled to attend the closing of the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on Saturday.
He was taken from his Rome hotel to the city's Umberto I hospital late on Wednesday, according to a hospital spokesperson.
"The resuscitation maneuvers, including heart massage etc., continued for 40 minutes and then, seeing no electric activity from the heart, this was interrupted and we declared James dead," Claudio Modini, the emergency room chief, told Reuters.
"The patient was considered dead on arrival, and for that reason an autopsy has been requested to be carried out by a pathologist, as is normal procedure in our country."
The autopsy has been scheduled for Friday morning.
Michael Kobold, a friend of the family, told reporters the actor was found by a relative at his hotel in central Rome after suffering an apparent heart attack.
Since "The Sopranos" ended its six-season run in June 2007, Gandolfini appeared in a number of big-screen roles, including "Zero Dark Thirty," a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the crime drama "Killing Them Softly."
At the time of his death, he had been working on an upcoming HBO series, "Criminal Justice," and had two motion pictures due out next year.
Actress Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini's wife, Carmela, in "The Sopranos," said she was devastated by his passing.
"He was a man of tremendous depth and sensitivity, with a kindness and generosity beyond words. I consider myself very lucky to have spent 10 years as his close colleague," she said in a statement.
Gandolfini began his career as a stage actor in New York and went on to earn a Tony nomination for his role in the original 2009 Broadway cast of the dark comedy "God of Carnage."
While he shared Tony Soprano's Italian-American heritage and New Jersey roots, the actor was known for his reserved demeanor off-camera and generally shied away from publicity.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie described the actor's sudden death as a shock.
"I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically, Tony Soprano. I have gotten to know Jimmy and many of the other actors in the Sopranos cast and I can say that each of them are an individual New Jersey treasure," he said in a statement.
In the HBO series, 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 and was a doting father, but he carried on a string of 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 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 series concluded with an 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 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," said he would remember 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 said in a statement.
Actress Marcia Gay Harden, his co-star in "God of Carnage," saluted Gandolfini as a "great partner, masterful actor and a loving, generous human being."
Susan Sarandon, who played his wife in the 2005 romantic comedy "Romance and Cigarettes," remembered him in a Twitter posting as "one of the sweetest, funniest, most generous actors I've ever worked with."
Gandolfini is due to appear on the big screen next year, playing the love interest of comic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the film "Enough Said." He also has a role in the upcoming New York crime drama, "Animal Rescue."
Both are set for U.S. release by News Corp-owned studio Fox Searchlight.
Before becoming an actor, Gandolfini worked as a truck driver, bouncer and nightclub manager in New York City. 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.'"
Born in Westwood, New Jersey, Gandolfini was raised in a working-class, Italian-American family. His father was a bricklayer and high school custodian. His mother worked in a school cafeteria.
In an interview on the television program "Inside the Actors Studio," he said his parents spoke Italian at 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 and Antonio Denti; Additional reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Steve Gorman and Steve Scherer; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Xavier Briand)