James Gandolfini's body returns to New Jersey

Image: James Gandolfini
NEW YORK - APRIL 22: Actor James Gandolfini arrives at the Vanity Fair party for the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival held at the State Supreme Courthouse on April 22, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)Getty Images file

ROME -- The body of "The Sopranos" actor James Gandolfini arrived in the United States on Sunday night.

A plane carrying the Emmy Award winner arrived at New Jersey's Newark airport at 9:30 p.m. ET, according to a source. Earlier, airport authorities confirmed that he was flown out of the Rome's Fiumicino Airport aboard a private flight.

An HBO spokesperson speaking on behalf of the family told NBC New York that the funeral was scheduled for Thursday at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.

Earlier, a family friend of the Gandolfinis had said the process of repatriation had been expedited with help from the Italian and U.S. authorities, including Secretary of State John Kerry.

"We are fully aware that this process usually takes seven days and we are extremely grateful for their efficiency in dealing with this matter," Michael Kobold said in a statement. "It has been our privilege to be guests in your beautiful country, despite the difficult circumstances."

Kobold had previously announced at a news conference Friday that an autopsy showed "The Sopranos" star died of a "heart attack of natural causes" and "nothing else was found in his system."

The 51-year-old suffered the heart attack in the bathroom of his room at the Hotel Boscolo in Rome while on vacation with his teenage son, Michael, and sister, Kobold told reporters.

"James came here on vacation with family," Kobold said. "On Wednesday he went to visit the Vatican, and had dinner at the hotel with his son while waiting for his sister ... All are devastated for his loss. He was a loving father."

"He was happy, healthy, on vacation with his son," Kobold said. "He was fine."

Medical staff attempted to resuscitate Gandofini after his son found him in the bathroom, but he was pronounced dead at about 11 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET) Wednesday at Policlinico Umberto I hospital, which is a three-minute drive from the hotel.

Famous for his role as mob boss Tony Soprano in hit HBO show "The Sopranos," Gandolfini was on a celebratory trip to Italy with his 13-year-old son, who had just graduated from junior high school and won a soccer championship.

Experts said a heart attack was a common cause of death for a man in his 50s.

Dr. John Harold, president of the American College of Cardiology and a heart specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said that “in many patients who have a heart attack, the first symptom is sudden death and they don’t even make it to a hospital.”

The award-winning actor made even brutal mob boss Tony Soprano seem likable, but that was far from his only role.

Tributes have flooded in for the actor, who won three Emmy Awards and three Screen Actors Guild awards for playing Soprano from 1999-2007.

He also appeared in a number of big-screen roles, including the crime drama "Killing Them Softly" and "Zero Dark Thirty," a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who directed Gandolfini in “Zero Dark Thirty,” said she was devastated by the news of his death.

"James was such an enormous talent, and an even greater spirit. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of working with him, and shall cherish his memories always," she said in a statement.

Nicole Kidman said Gandolfini was “such a great actor,” describing his death as “a big loss.”

“Sending love and prayers to James’ family. He will be greatly missed,” she said in a statement to Eonline.com.

Brad Pitt described Gandolfini as “a ferocious actor, a gentle soul and a genuinely funny man." “I am fortunate to have sat across the table from him and am gutted by this loss.”

Gandolfini also made a good impression on the ordinary people he met.

An employee at the Hotel Boscolo told Italy's la Repubblica newspaper that during his stay the actor had signed autographs and was “very friendly with us from hotel's staff and with other guests in the restaurant. A nice person.”

NBC News' Ian Johnston, Reuters and Mads Frese contributed to this report.