'Sopranos' actor James Gandolfini dead at 51

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James Gandolfini, the actor perhaps most famous for his lead role in the hit series "The Sopranos," has died in Rome at the age of 51, according to representatives at HBO.

The actor may have died of a heart attack, said Karen James, a company spokeswoman.

Related: James Gandolfini opens up about Tony Soprano and God of Carnage (audio)

“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," said David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos."

In a statement released Wednesday, Chase continued:

"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. For Deborah and Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain.”

Talent managers Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders issued the following statement via HBO:

"It is with immense sorrow that we report our client James Gandolfini passed away today while on holiday in Rome, Italy.  Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply.  He and his family were part of our family for many years and we are all grieving."

HBO followed it with a statement of its own:

"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family.  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.  Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time.  He will be deeply missed by all of us."

Gandolfini was perhaps best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of the brutal, brooding mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos," which aired from 1999 to 2007.

In life, Gandolfini was a very different person. In an interview with KPCC's Larry Mantle in 2011, he even grew uncomfortable listening to a clip from the show and said he didn't recognize the voice or recall his performance. 

"This wasn't a guy who spoke in that 'deez' and 'doze' stereotypical mob talk. He really was a different guy off screen. I think you really saw that in the kinds of roles he picked outside 'The Sopranos,'" said Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief of digital for Variety.

Gandolfini's film credits included "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Killing Them Softly," and he amassed stage credits as well.

He shared a Broadway stage in 2009 with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in a celebrated production of "God of Carnage," where he earned a Tony Award nomination for best actor. He had also been in "On the Waterfront" with David Morse and was an understudy in a revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1992 starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

"When you spend six or seven years in one role, the audience almost has trouble accepting you any other way. In a way I think he really had fun in the post-"Sopranos" years trying to shake that..." Wallenstein said.

Michael Price, a writer and co-executive producer of "The Simpsons," recalled Gandolfini as an actor of extraordinary ability. The two met when Price was producing a small two-person play in New York early in both their careers. Gandolfini auditioned for one of the roles and "nailed it," but he ultimately backed out to take a paying gig with a production of "Death of a Salesman," Price told KPCC's John Rabe. 

"What a, just an incredible capacity for intensity and realness, you know," Price said. He continued:

"I mean, that's what I think made Tony Soprano such an indelible character is that you totally believed that he was this guy, you know, that he was capable of all the, of being this huge range of emotions — you know, loving his family, but also a guy who will kill someone who gets in his way. And of course, he was taken from us way too soon. I'm sure there would have been years and years of amazing performances to come."

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This story has been updated.

With contributions by Lynn Elber/AP

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